Nimble and Strategic: How a Small Funder Aims for a Big Impact on Alzheimer's

Sometimes you have to think small to win big.

That's how GHR Foundation is ensuring that some of the most promising avenues in Alzheimer's research don't bog down in the complexities of clinical studies and new drug development.

We reported earlier this year on GHR's involvement in a multi-organizational, five-year program to test two drugs that scientists hope will delay or even prevent the tragic destruction of memory and cognitive function Alzheimer's causes. This is part of GHR's expanding support for scientific research, as the 50-year-old foundation evolves beyond its traditional focus supporting communities and entrepreneurship.

GHR's decision to commit more funding to Alzheimer's research grew out of a 15-year relationship with the Mayo Clinic. "The board really looked at what we could do to make a breakthrough in our Alzheimer's funding," Amy Goldman, chair and CEO of GHR, told Inside Philanthropy. "We tried to learn from other organizations that have been in Alzheimer's research where we could add a small piece to make a project better."

To develop a long-term strategy for its Alzheimer's giving, GHR brought on Fred Miller, a veteran healthcare specialist for McKinsey & Company, the management consulting giant. In his role as GHR's Health Principal Advisory, Miller put together a scientific advisory council of experienced researchers to guide GHR's funding decisions.

A major element of the GHR strategy is to partner with other leading players in Alzheimer's research like the NIH, other philanthropies and organizations like the Alzheimer's Association, as well as the pharma industry.

GHR wasn't the biggest foundationthough its $17 million commitment over five years for Alzheimer's research is nothing to sneeze at—and last year alone, it granted $17 million worldwide for all its work. But clinical research is fantastically time consuming and expensive, so Goldman and the board knew their money had to be deployed artfully.

GHR turned its relatively trim management structure into an asset. "We can identify a new technology to study and act fast, where the funding cycle in the NIH and industry can be long," said Miller. "These studies are big and expensive undertakings, so we help work together with the NIH, industry and other philanthropies to put together joint funding programs for these big projects."

Goldman helped GHR decide to support in Alzheimer's prevention, considered one of the more promising potential treatment areas for a disease that drug developers have made little headway in. That led to GHR's support for A4, a major study that involves scanning the brains of healthy seniors, to see if drug candidates can prevent the formation of the plaques that signal the disease, but that appear 10 to 15 years prior to the onset of dementia.

GHR also extended support to the DIAN study, a project that involved participants with a genetic predisposition to early-onset Alzheimer's, to develop new drugs. It was similar to a strategy that had yielded new drug treatments in heart disease. The big DIAN study was gearing up. "But GHR was able to help get the study started and off the ground a year earlier than NIH would have been able to," said Miller.

That kind of funding nimbleness is core to GHR's strategy, said Goldman: "We have really found our niche as being entrepreneurial in our funding, and to help broker relationships between the various organizations involved."