Rockefeller University establishes $25 million fund for drug discovery

A new $25 million fund to help develop basic research discoveries into new medical therapies will provide support for dozens of promising Rockefeller projects over a five-year period, the university announced today. The fund, which will enable the university to award grants ranging from $10,000 to $1 million or more to advance innovative projects, will provide Rockefeller scientists with the resources required to take exceptionally promising basic research initiatives through the steps that lead to breakthrough medications, new diagnostic tests or other clinical innovations.

The fund will be known as the Robertson Therapeutic Development Fund in honor of a $25 million gift from the Robertson Foundation, established by noted investment manager Julian H. Robertson, Jr., and his family.

“The Robertson Therapeutic Development Fund will provide critical support for medically significant research that has evolved beyond the basic research stage, but has not yet amassed sufficient data to attract industrial or venture capital,” says Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the university’s president. “Julian Robertson’s extraordinary gift will enable these projects to move forward, and the fund’s flexible, multi-tiered structure will ensure that the resources are used efficiently to support projects that have the greatest potential to benefit patients.”

Projects will be selected for either proof-of-concept funding, to jump-start initiatives aimed at identifying and validating potential therapeutic targets, or for larger early clinical development grants, which will pay for drug design, toxicology testing and, in some cases, phase I clinical trials.

Grant requests will be reviewed by an independent committee of experts drawn from the pharmaceutical, biotech and life sciences investment industries. A newly hired program director, Bruce Conway, will administer the grants and work with faculty to guide the design and execution of their projects. Conway, who has a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology and twenty years of experience in drug discovery and early development project management, has worked in both the pharmaceutical and biotech industries. He will report to Rockefeller’s vice president for university strategy and research operations and will work closely with its Technology Transfer Office.

The Robertson Therapeutic Development Fund will be an important complement to the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute (TDI), a newly formed venture with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and Weill Cornell Medical College designed to link academic researchers with partners in the pharmaceutical sector. The Fund will support projects in the early and late stages of the drug development process that are not covered by TDI, as well as biological products that are not part of TDI’s current mission, such as therapeutic antibodies. In this way, the Fund will help to bridge critical gaps in drug discovery, ensuring that important findings made in the university’s labs have the best chance of becoming new medicines.

The Robertson Foundation aspires to utilize a pro-active, disciplined grant-making approach to effect significant social change in the principal areas of education, the environment, and medical research. Robertson, chairman and chief executive officer of Tiger Management, has been a member of the university’s Board of Trustees since 2001. A 2011 gift from the Robertson Foundation is now supporting the university’s ambitious tenure-track faculty recruitment program. In addition, three Rockefeller assistant professors — Winrich Freiwald, Gaby Maimon and Vanessa Ruta — are Robertson Investigators in Neuroscience who receive support from the Robertson Foundation through the New York Stem Cell Foundation.

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