May 23, 2013

Henry McCance Draws on the VC Model for Philanthropic Collaboration

After Henry McCance's wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, he co-founded a nonprofit that uses the venture capital model to fund breakthrough research on the disease.

By: The Bridgespan Group

Henry McCanceAfter Henry McCance's wife was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, the couple tried to learn everything they could about it. What he found was a serious lack of information and treatment options. Angry and discouraged, McCance took action and co-founded the Cure Alzheimer's Fund in 2006.

The nonprofit uses the venture capital model to fund breakthrough research on Alzheimer's disease. It's a fitting model for the former head of Greylock Partners, current part-owner of the Boston Red Sox, and a man Forbes magazine once labeled as one of the nation’s top 10 venture capitalists. "Venture capitalists are active investors; we're not passive investors," he says. "We go on the boards; we work with the CEO, so it was natural for me to want to be involved in this activity more than just financially supporting it—that's where I get my fun."

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It was that close involvement that allowed him to see something surprising. McCance says that Alzheimer’s researchers, like many researchers in the medical field, historically have operated in silos, including those with whom he was working. "Yes, they got together once a year at the Annual Meeting of Society of Neurosciences, but they didn't collaborate as much as I would have thought," he says. "Again, going back to the venture capital model to be very simplistic, it would be as if the best five design engineers at Apple all sat in different corners of the Apple campus and didn't talk to one another very often."

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In other words, silos tend not to produce innovation—collaboration does. McCance's group was providing VC-type funding for the researcher's projects without the hurdles of bureaucracy, but in return it became clear that the researchers too would have to give something: "The catch was you need to meet in person with one another four times a year on a Cure Alzheimer’s Fund research consortium call," says McCance. The goal of such meetings was to provide researchers with a forum for information sharing and collaboration. "And out of that will come new ideas, new thoughts, new tangents to run with, and you've got to use those things." McCance says that such meetings—where researchers can brainstorm and share ideas—are critical to setting priorities for the Cure Alzheimer's Fund.

For McCance's philanthropic journey, realizing that he needed to foster collaboration among researchers in order to achieve his goals was an important lesson. It resulted in "something pretty good," he says.

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