Investing for our future health

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Governors of The Ian Potter Foundation, including Sir Ian (centre) with lead scientists at The Florey (1979).

Sir Ian Potter’s great interest in medical research began before he established this Foundation. In 1960 he and Ken Myer each donated £50,000 and underwrote another £50,000 to grease the wheels for the creation of a new medical research institute. Their well-honed lobbying skills and personal contacts at the highest level of government perhaps helped as much as the money they donated. The organisation, opened in 1963 by prime minister Menzies and Howard Florey himself, was officially called The Howard Florey Laboratories of Experimental Physiology and Medicine.

Helping set up The Florey left a deep mark on Sir Ian and spiked his interest in the power of philanthropy. Never a small-picture thinker, this experience motivated him to set up his own foundation – one that could help drive excellence across a broader range of fields that included the arts and other areas of science.  

Accordingly, Medical Research has been a central aspect of The Ian Potter Foundation’s giving from the start. Some of the Foundation’s first grants were directed to supporting significant medical research institutions and the talented people behind them. The fundamental principles of the approach first taken by Sir Ian and the expert advisors on the Foundation’s original Board, are still relevant and remain at the core of the Foundation’s approach to Medical Research grants. 

“The science has changed a great deal since then but the decisions about where the money should be invested still come back to the same key requirement: that the program is of the highest standard - and that criterion extends to the people, the institution and the idea,” said Professor Graeme Ryan AC, Governor of The Ian Potter Foundation.

This approach has ensured a strong track record for The Ian Potter Foundation in Medical Research philanthropy, and given it the flexibility to seek out and support key areas of need.  In every case, the Foundation assesses applications against a set of funding principles which include outstanding leadership, a focus on prevention, the potential for replication, the opportunity for partnerships and the sustainability of the project. 

Central to the success of the Foundation’s work funding Medical Research is the expertise and knowledge of the Board of Governors, such as Professor Graeme Ryan AC, Professor Richard Larkins AO and Professor Fiona Stanley AC, who make assessments of the Medical Research grant applications and make the recommendations to the Board.  The majority of the Foundation’s grants fund key equipment purchases and capital works to provide the infrastructure needed to allow the researchers to explore, investigate and test ideas and theories. Since 1964, the Foundation has committed over $60 million in support for Australia's leading medical research institutions, the largest being $15 million in 2012 to the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre Project, which will officially open in June this year.

The Foundation’s program of Travel grants is another important aspect of our support for medical research, providing funding for talented early career researchers to travel overseas to present their findings, helping them to build networks, knowledge and credibility. 

“The great opportunity for philanthropy is to fund people who have proven they have what it takes and provide them with the means to pursue their ideas, and this in turn often generates a ripple effect of benefits,” says Craig Connelly, CEO of the Foundation. 

The Foundation has emphasised support for promising experimental ideas to assist them to evolve to a stage at which they can attract ongoing funding and support. There are many examples of philanthropic funding assisting organisations to build the momentum and credibility required to leverage additional funding from other philanthropic donors, the government and the large grant making bodies such as the NH&MRC.  

Coinciding with Medical Research Week, two recent medical research grants have been featured as case studies on our website, showcasing our philosophy of providing funding to critical aspects of medical research. One of these stories tells of a grant of $100,000 to the Victor Chang Institute, a leading heart research institute producing improvements in a numerous areas of cardiac health, including the way heart transplants are performed and streamlining drug screening for harmful cardiac effects. A grant in 2014 supported the purchase of a new ultrasound machine that has enabled significant new research projects including echocardiography on zebrafish - a seemingly unlikely but valuable research model for human heart disease - and helped the Institute to attract other funders. The subject of the other case study is St Vincent's Institute of Medical Research's Integrated Clinical Research Facility. This facility aims to bridge the gap from medical research to clinical applications, which is vital to improving disease outcomes. A 2013 grant of $250,000 from The Ian Potter Foundation to St Vincent's Institute of Medical Research (SVI) supported the purchase of equipment to allow the high-throughput sorting and identification of cells. As part of a larger program, the equipment facilitates the application of research findings through clinical and commercial pathways, specifically by enhancing capability to do research with human samples.

The Ian Potter Foundation is proud to play a part in advancing medical research in Australia, an area in which this country undoubtedly punches above its weight. Australian medical research has developed exponentially over the last 50 years, evolving to become a significant contributor in an international context - a position that requires ongoing commitment and investment from all stakeholders if it is to be maintained.

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