From the ground-breaking work of Professor Graeme Clark developing the cochlear implant to Ian Frazer and Jian Zhou’s HPV Vaccine, funding from the Clive and Vera Ramaciotti Foundations has been instrumental in nurturing the work of medical researchers across Australia.
It was just $15,000 but it made all the difference. As Graeme Clark struggled to fund the prototype of the cochlear implant, he faced losing his key engineer, Dr Ian Forster, who was conducting research that would help discover if electrical stimulation of the hearing nerve would allow deaf patients to understand speech. The 15k grant from the Ramaciotti Foundations helped Clark retain the services of Dr Forster. Today, hundreds of thousands of profoundly and severely deaf people can now hear thanks to Professor Clark’s discovery.
“The Ramaciotti Foundations are one of the largest private contributors to biomedical research in Australia. They showcase the importance of building capacity in the sector by funding projects that would not normally attract funds elsewhere, often enabling support to leverage further funding,” says Caitriona Fay, General Manager of Community & Social Investments at Perpetual, which manages the Ramaciotti Foundations.
2020 is the 50th anniversary the Clive and Vera Ramaciotti Foundations, established in 1970 by Vera Ramaciotti three years after her brother Clive’s death. Since then the Foundations have awarded more than $61 million to biomedical researchers.
A legacy begins
The Ramaciotti family fortune was founded by Vera’s father, Gustavo. An Italian immigrant born in 1861, Gustavo came to Australia with his family as a child. He served in the military and worked for many years in a legal firm before becoming a partner in Australia’s largest theatrical company and later acquiring Sydney’s Theatre Royal in 1913 or thereabouts. He died in 1927 leaving two children of independent means.
Vera and Clive were exceptionally close and neither had children. When Clive died in 1967, the same year Graeme Clark began his quest for an electronic, implantable hearing device, he left his estate to Vera.
Vera funded The Ramaciotti Foundations with the sale of the historic Theatre Royal for $7.25 million in 1969. One foundation was established to fund work from her home state of NSW and the second to support institutions operating in other jurisdictions.
Dubbed ‘the quiet millionairess’ by The Australian Women’s Weekly in 1970 after news broke that she was giving away $6.7 million, Vera told the publication that the Ramaciotti Foundations were intended as a memorial to Clive and herself.
Vera left the management of the Foundations in the experienced hands of Perpetual, but she had a very clear idea of how the money should be used.
Of her decision to focus on medical research and education, she said: “I’ve had a lot of operations and I am governor of the Sydney Hospital, so that influenced my choice.” Clive was also very interested in biomedical research.
Supporting a healthy funding ecosystem for medical research
Medical research is a precarious undertaking, especially for early and mid-career researchers.
The recent Medical Research Future Fund (MRFF) and changes to the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) have somewhat narrowed the notorious funding gap, known as the ‘Valley of Death’ (see Battle of Balaclava and Psalm 23) – a place where many medical researchers find themselves when they have the basic science but need to conduct expensive clinical trials before funders commit to a new drug or treatment.
This is, of course, great news. But as translational or applied research has found favour with governments, industry and philanthropists keen to see impact, funding for the stuff that fuels it – the discovery phase known as basic research – is declining.
That’s why medical researchers need philanthropists like Vera, and the woman who inspired her – Eliza Hall. In 1915 Eliza established Australia’s oldest medical research institute, The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, as a birthplace for major discoveries.
It was fitting that the first major grant went to The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute.
“Vera’s focus from the outset was to support the kind of research that could lead to significant breakthroughs in health and in science,” says Caitriona. “She really wanted the Foundations to represent the best in what we probably refer to venture philanthropy today.
“She saw those dollars as being important catalytic dollars to support the kind of research that could lead to major breakthroughs. She wasn’t worried about failing. She wanted to back great researchers who were shooting for really big and bold ideas.”
Those big and bold ideas require a patient philanthropist – one who is not necessarily looking for attribution or a project to pin their name to – with an appetite for risk.
“You’re investing in building blocks that, as research is published, other researchers will build upon and ultimately lead to really important discoveries and outcomes,” says Caitriona.
“Medical research needs philanthropists who are willing to back individuals and research teams and give them the resources to get on with the science. Backing great quality science and great quality individuals regardless of where they are on their career journey is one of the most important things a medical research philanthropist can possibly do.”
To ensure the Ramaciotti Foundations are doing exactly this, Perpetual seeks the counsel of a scientific advisory committee.
“That scientific advisory committee is absolutely crucial in helping us not just find great ideas and great organisations and research teams to invest in, but it’s also an important sounding board for us to ensure that we’re continuing to think about the things that we need to be thinking about when we’re advising philanthropists – to tell them the stories of what resources are most important to the medical community to have the maximum impact.”
Recent philanthropic support
Last year more than $2 million was distributed to 10 researchers to research and address diseases including leukaemia, cystic fibrosis, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, asthma and lupus, as well as spinal cord injury, corneal perforations and immunisation coverage.
The biennial Ramaciotti Biomedical Research Award, worth $1 million, went to Professor Heidi Smith-Vaughan and her team at Menzies School of Health Research. The funding will be used to construct the Ramaciotti Centre for Excellence in Building Regional and Remote Biomedical Capability.
“I’m excited that we’re supporting a regional research institute,” says Caitriona. “The centre will ultimately develop a pipeline of sustainable local indigenous biomedical researchers to work with remote communities, which will ensure the diversity of workforce that’s going to be critical to addressing some of the health challenges facing communities in regional and remote northern Australia. And, importantly, we’re demonstrating to an indigenous workforce the diversity of biomedical career pathways that there are for young people.”
The Ramaciotti Medal for Excellence, an annual award of $50,000 to a researcher who has made an outstanding discovery in clinical or experimental biomedical research, was awarded to Professor Tim Hughes. The Precision Medicine Theme Leader at South Australian Health and Medical Research Institute (SAHMRI), Professor Hughes received the Medal for his work in the development and refinement of kinase inhibitor therapy for chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML), transforming CML from a universally fatal disease into one associated with nearly normal survival.
The awards also include the Ramaciotti Health Investment Grants of up to $150,000 for eight recipients in universities, public hospitals or institutes to support their progress in taking their research to clinical application within five years. Last year those researchers heralded from the Australian National University, The University of Newcastle, University of New South Wales, Monash University, The University of Queensland, University of Sydney, and Curtin University.
Celebrating 50 years
There will be more stories to come as Perpetual celebrates the milestone anniversary of the Clive and Vera Ramaciotti Foundations and looks back on 50 years of consistently supporting vital outlier biomedical research.
Clare Joyce is the Editor-in-Chief of F&P.