President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget isn’t kind to science funding, but Bill Ackman is.
One day after Congress received the administration’s request to cut almost $6 billion from the National Institutes of Health, the hedge fund manager and his philanthropic team awarded six scientists $200,000 a year each, for up to three years.
The fourth annual awards presentation took place Wednesday at the Park Avenue Armory with Nobel Prize-winning biochemist James Rothman of Yale University, Richard Lifton, president of Rockefeller University, and some of the previous 19 recipients of the Pershing Square Sohn Prize in attendance.
“Initially we made a $25 million grant, but when you do the math, $25 million sounds like a finite number,” Ackman said in remarks during dinner. “Obviously, this is not something we want to end. This is something we want to exist forever.”
The Ackman family’s Pershing Square Foundation committed the money to support the Sohn Investment Conference mission of funding cancer research in honor of Ira Sohn, an investor who died of the disease. Olivia Flatto, a former scientist and philanthropist, developed the program, named the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance. It focuses on researchers based in New York City, providing not only funds but connections to business and academic leaders.
“What we have here is a community,” said Evan Sohn, Ira Sohn’s brother.
Targeting early-stage investigators made sense to Ackman, in part because of an encounter he had in business school with legendary investor Richard Rainwater.
“I told him I was thinking of starting an investment firm,” Ackman said. “Pretty much everyone thought it was a stupid idea. And this guy said to me, ‘You don’t need to be old to be right.’ Somehow, this was the most inspiring thing.”
The maxim currently applies less to him than to the researchers. “Now that I’ve turned 51 — you need to be old to be right,” he said.
Among the 2017 Pershing Square Sohn Prize recipients are Daniel Heller, studying tiny particles to deliver drugs to tumors, and Juan Cubillos-Ruiz, who is working on a vaccine to prevent the recurrence of ovarian cancer. The premise is to manipulate the function of immune cells so they work better in the tumor when transferred to the patient, he said.
One testament to the “intellectual engine” of the alliance, Ackman said, is that other philanthropic sources have followed with funding. The Melanoma Research Alliance, created by Debra and Leon Black, is joining the alliance to support Richard White, who studies the mechanisms of metastasis using the zebrafish. Igor Tulchinsky and his hedge fund, WorldQuant, recently gave $5 million to Christopher Mason’s lab “to blend quantitative finance algorithms with our genomic data,” Mason said.
Mason — who’s currently working on a volume of “dorky genomic poetry” in which stanzas hop around as genes do — said private funding “has never been more important. I would say that
70 percent of our lab’s funding comes from philanthropy.”
Last year Mason rapped at the dinner. On this occasion, he plied Ackman for a nickname to use in a future rhyme. Ackman wasn’t willing to commit, but did mention a moniker he used as a child: Ack-attack.