Oklahoma City, September 13, 2015, By Stephen Prescott, M.D. For The Oklahoman
One-question quiz: When you think of the Presbyterian Health Foundation, what’s the first thing that pops into your head?
If you said “research park,” you win.
Well, technically, there’s no right answer here. But if you’re like me, it was hard to separate PHF from the formidable complex of buildings the foundation constructed along Lincoln Boulevard between NE 4 and NE 8.
That campus, which encompasses 700,000 square feet of office and laboratory space, became the heart of Oklahoma City’s biotechnology start-up economy. It incubated young companies like Novazyme and Crescendo Biosciences, which would, respectively, go on to be acquired by industry giants Genzyme and Myriad Genetics.
Using funds acquired from the sale of Presbyterian Hospital (which today is a part of OU Medical Center), the foundation provided subsidized space to dozens of nascent businesses. Some succeeded, and others didn’t. But thanks to PHF, if you were a burgeoning Oklahoma City biotech entrepreneur, you had access to first-in-class, affordable space that rivaled anything you could find on the East or West coast.
In 2013, PHF sold the research park to the University of Oklahoma. OU needed the space to house additional laboratories on its Health Sciences Center campus. But it has continued to lease out space in the park to startups and other businesses outside of the university that need access to the park’s unique resources.
So what’s become of PHF?
With the $85 million it realized from the sale of the research park, the foundation has gone back to its roots. You see, before it built the research park, PHF was primarily a grant-making philanthropy.
It came into existence in 1985 with the sale of Presbyterian Hospital. Using the proceeds from that sale, it supported medical research and education, primarily in the Oklahoma Health Center. But as it turned its efforts — and funds — increasingly toward the development and support of the research park, it had fewer and fewer resources to devote to support initiatives like endowed chairs, medical education and capital expansion projects at OU and other nonprofit organizations in the Health Center.
But in keeping with its plan to foster a biotechnology industry in Oklahoma, it helped create Accele BioPharma. Founded in partnership with i2E and the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation, this novel “incubator” introduced a new element into the state’s biotech landscape: a capital-efficient mechanism to nurture early-phase life sciences companies.
Following the 2013 sale of the research park, PHF’s balance sheet looked very different. Gone were the expenses of operating the research park, and added were substantial new assets from the sale. So it only made sense for PHF to jump-start its grant-making activities.
And jump-start it has. In 2015 alone, it has awarded more than $3 million to Oklahoma organizations like the OU Health Sciences Center OMRF for medical research and education. As when it was operating the research park, the foundation has remained focused on stimulating breakthroughs in medical research and expanding economic activity in the state’s biosciences sector.
At OMRF, grants from PHF have already helped purchase 10 new pieces of scientific equipment and fund 11 different research projects. Those projects span disease areas ranging from cancer to heart disease.
Usually, it takes years for investments in medical research to yield payoffs. But in the short time since PHF has gotten back into the granting game, four different scientists at OMRF who were tapped to receive PHF grants have transformed those projects into funded grants from the National Institutes of Health. Each of those grants received more than $1 million in federal research funds.
PHF also helped fund a pair of highly successful national conferences at OMRF. The most recent, the OMRF BioVenture Forum 2015, brought together dozens of venture capitalists and biotech and pharmaceutical industry leaders. Already, that conference has led to the creation of a new startup company in Oklahoma City that will be funded by seasoned East Coast biotech executives. It also gave rise to more than $400,000 in new research funding agreements at OMRF, with many more currently in negotiations.
Led by President Tom R. Gray, III, and Chairman Carl Edwards, PHF has at once made a bold pivot and remained true to its 30-year mission. With its new granting initiative, the foundation has once again found a way to accelerate the progress of medical research while growing bioscience in Oklahoma City. And it’s done this in a way that’s allowing OMRF — and Oklahoma City — to leverage those dollars into larger grants from government and industry sources.
So, really, these days, when I think of the Presbyterian Health Foundation, I no longer think of a research park. I think of a champion of medical research, education and economic growth that continues to evolve to meet the needs of our community.
Prescott, a physician and medical researcher, is president of the Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.