The Wallin Neuroscience Discovery Fund
The late Winston Wallin was keen to invest in promising but untested ideas. Today, that inclination is advancing brain research at the University of Minnesota.
In fact, U of M neuroscientists are testing all kinds of great, unproven ideas — from using electrical stimulation of the brain to treat addiction to redirecting stem cells to repair stroke-damaged brain tissue. But because much of this research is in the preliminary stages, getting federal grants to continue it is nearly impossible.
“Young investigators are unlikely to get [federal] support since they don’t have a track record or may be trying something that hasn’t even been thought of before,” says Aaron Friedman, M.D., vice president for health sciences and dean of the Medical School. “Most people want to bet on a sure thing.”
Luckily, Wallin wasn’t one of them. Shortly before his death in December 2010, he and his wife, Maxine, and their adult children put in motion the Winston and Maxine Wallin Neuroscience Discovery Fund, an annually recurring $500,000 gift to support the pursuit of novel ideas by University neuroscientists.
Researchers compete for grants that can be used as seed money to generate the data and evidence they need to apply for more long-term funding.
The Neuroscience Discovery Fund was an entrepreneurial leap of faith for the Wallins. They took the chance that this gift could help the University garner a larger share of federal research dollars and speed up the process of moving lifesaving research from the lab to the bedside.
“The Discovery Fund is an inventive way to support research and another example of how the Wallins have been longtime and dedicated champions of the medical sciences,” says Friedman.
A bigger piece of the pie
“Over the coming years, we hope to support dozens of projects with the Discovery Fund,” says the Wallins’ son Brad, who will help oversee the fund along with other family members. “If a handful of them get major grants, it will be worth it. Our father loved the idea of pulling more research money into the U. Out of the $26.6 billion NIH research budget last year, for example, the U received about $260 million. He wanted to grow that substantially.”
According to Brad and his brother Lance, their parents chose to support the neurosciences after learning that it’s easier to find donors to support other areas, like cancer and heart research, that are more familiar to people.
The dean of the Medical School will lead and administer the program, but an independent neuroscientist on the awards committee will give the Wallin family insights into the chosen projects.
“The Discovery Fund is an investment in the future, without any expectation of shortterm clinical solutions,” says Lance Wallin. “But our father would have very carefully watched the near-term milestones, which are whether or not this novel research attracts additional federal funds.”
Much of the Wallin Neuroscience Discovery Fund research will take place in the Winston and Maxine Wallin Medical Biosciences Building in the University’s Biomedical Discovery District, the emerging research park that Win Wallin labored long and hard to secure through a state bonding authorization. For the Wallins’ unstinting efforts on the U’s behalf, the building was named in their honor.
Their support of the medical sciences also included funding chairs in the Medical School and spearheading the Masonic Cancer Center’s capital campaign, which raised more than $30 million to construct the Masonic Cancer Research Building. In 1993 Win Wallin agreed to take on — with no salary — the U’s then-troubled health sciences as interim dean and vice president.
A family affair
Win and Maxine attended the University: he on the GI Bill and she on an academic scholarship. (Maxine also attended Macalester College.) Education was a philanthropic priority for them, and they founded Wallin Education Partners. Over the past 20 years, this group of donors has provided a college education and academic support for 3,000 standout Twin Cities high school students with financial need. Currently, 254 of those students are enrolled at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities on scholarships totaling more than $1 million.
The Wallin children are continuing their parents’ commitment to education and research. They are proud of and involved with Wallin Education Partners and, along with helping to oversee the Discovery Fund, Brad Wallin serves on the Minnesota Medical Foundation’s Board of Trustees and Neurosciences Development Advisory Committee.
The family hopes the Wallin Neuroscience Discovery Fund can be a new model for others looking for different ways to give to the University.
“This is an unusual gift at a time when a lot people are wondering what they can do to help,” says Brad. “Our parents have blazed a path for donors and shown them an innovative way to invest in research and the future success of the University. It will be exciting to see what unfolds.”
By Martha Coventry