Giving Matters | Brenda and Bill Younger
Unleashing Innovation: Philanthropic Couple’s Support of High-Risk, High-Reward Science
Bill and Brenda Younger understand the power and potential of supporting big ideas—support that often involves taking a risk on the person behind the idea.
“It’s the venture capital model of philanthropy—that is, you find a great leader who has a world-class idea. And then you help them get to the next level,” says Bill. “My experience is there are as many great ideas in the nonprofit world as there are in the for-profit, tech world.”
As a partner at Sutter Hill Ventures investing in e-business software, medical devices, and life science companies, Bill has shared his expertise with active involvement on the Stanford Hospital Board of Directors and Campaign for Stanford Medicine Major Gifts Committee.
When Bill and Brenda learned that an anonymous donor offered a 1:3 Biomedical Innovation Challenge Match to establish a number of endowed professorships for basic science faculty, they jumped at the opportunity.
“I love matching gifts. I know the power of it—it’s motivational and it’s leveraging. We’re in an unusual time in basic science where the tools available to advance the science are remarkable—whether it’s stem cell technology, CRISPR technology, you name it. These things are moving the science along very rapidly. So this is a good time to be thinking about it,” says Bill.
“New approaches depend on understanding how the human body works much better than we do today. We understand so little about what can be done to prevent or treat disease. We’re just beginning to understand pathways and how they interact with other pathways and other proteins. We really need basic science to advance—or we’re all going to be in trouble,” he says.
“Every family has had to deal with disease,” adds Brenda. “My mother had Parkinson’s and there was little that could be done about it. Basic science is providing the underpinnings of great changes in the way we approach medicine going forward.”
Motivated and inspired by the challenge match, Bill went about looking for a scientist at Stanford whom he might support.
Over a period of several weeks, he met with Lloyd B. Minor, MD, the Carl and Elizabeth Naumann Dean of the School of Medicine, to discuss potential chairs. He interviewed five candidates and asked each of them about their research and what they hoped to achieve. He asked about collaborations and existing support. And he visited labs.
One professor had a mindset that particularly resonated with his own.
K. Christopher Garcia, PhD, is a professor of molecular and cellular physiology and of structural biology, a world expert who has been successful in determining the structure of key molecules. By dissecting structural and functional properties of signaling molecules, he redesigns them to manipulate biological processes central to human health and disease. His work spans diverse fields, with groundbreaking insights in immunology, neuro- biology, and stem cell biology that have the potential for widespread medical impact.
“Basic science is providing the underpinnings of great changes in the way we approach medicine going forward.”
One of Dr. Garcia’s greatest achievements is in the field of immunotherapy— stimulating immune responses to kill cancer cells. His landmark discovery of how immune receptors activate allowed him to reengineer immunotherapies to enhance tumor killing. He also designs proteins with regenerative potential that could revolutionize treatments for healing bone fractures; re-growing organs in patients with liver, kidney, or heart failure; and many other possibilities.
When Bill and Brenda visited Dr. Garcia’s lab, he introduced them to his team, showed them his space and equipment, and described his work. They were impressed by his ability to clearly communicate the focus of his work and articulate the potential impact of what he is doing in the areas of the immune system and regenerative medicine. He explained that receptors are the “front door for drug discovery” and how challenging they are to study.
“He’s really making headway in new ways of attacking the disease process,” says Brenda. “It’s going to make a big difference in the lives of people who find themselves with disease.”
During their visit to Dr. Garcia’s lab, the couple was particularly inspired by the great many opportunities for collaboration—the hallmark of Stanford research.
“It’s remarkable the number of Nobel Prize winners, imminent scientists, and Howard Hughes investigators who are there in that building, on that floor—all within 50 yards of each other,” says Bill.
Bill and Brenda decided to fund an endowed professorship for Dr. Garcia, which will provide secure, long-term support and flexibility. In an endowment, the principal is protected and invested for growth and return, yielding a yearly income stream to support a portion of Dr. Garcia’s salary and research expenses. The Younger Family Professorship will free him to focus on his research rather than spending time writing grants.
“I am extremely appreciative of the magnitude of the Youngers’ generosity. It will have a huge impact on my ability to do high-risk, high-reward science,” says Dr. Garcia. “My big vision is to discover new cell signaling interactions for new strategies to treat disease. It’s like searching for new planets.”
Specifically, he aims to reveal the functions and mechanisms of yet-uncharacterized orphan receptors, to unlock thousands of new drug targets and treatment strategies. “Orphan receptors are the single biggest bottleneck in drug discovery. It’s the most important thing we do, with the potential to impact all fields of medicine,” he says.
With funding from the National Institutes of Health on the decline during the past decade, Bill acknowledges that the federal agency does not typically engage in support for out-of-the-box projects—favoring “safer” research instead.
“The NIH usually funds projects that are not experimental in nature. They don’t like to fund things that fail. So if there is additional money from philanthropy, then that really unleashes a researcher to try new things. And I think that’s exciting,” he says.