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Driving progress on the new McGill Innovation Fund

McGill-trained physician David R. Holbrooke has been involved in innovative projects as an entrepreneur. Now, he’s helping support entrepreneurial innovation at McGill through a generous donation.

Researcher looking through a microscope

David R. Holbrooke, BSc’64, MDCM’69, knows a thing or two about innovation.

A family physician by training with an interest in medical science research, Holbrooke became an entrepreneur in the health care field – a path he never imagined for himself but one he has clearly thrived at.

“I’ve always had this intense curiosity of how things work and how can we make them better,” says Holbrooke from his home in California. “I ended up sponsoring all kinds of businesses and helping develop them.”

That interest in innovation sparked Holbrooke to make a $500,000 gift to the McGill Innovation Fund (MIF), which was founded in Fall 2021 to support entrepreneurial innovation by awarding grants to researchers seeking to commercialize new technologies and discoveries, and bring them to market. The MIF is designed to help researchers bridge the so-called “valley of death”, the precarious interval between an innovation’s emergence from a laboratory and its arrival in the marketplace, when the need for support is at its most acute stage. “It’s hard to secure government funding once a researcher’s work becomes less about answering a research question and more about making it commercially viable”, says Mark Weber, Director of Innovation and Partnerships at the McGill Office of Research and Innovation.

In addition to funds, successful teams will also take part in a 12-month support program that offers them coaching and guidance from McGill-alumni mentors. It’s a crucial aspect to the MIF that sets it apart from other entrepreneurial funding schemes that often leave winners to their own devices after an award is made.

The MIF awarded its first nine grants to McGill researchers in December. The winning submissions, from a pool of 26 applicants, included a project that aims to diagnose male infertility as well as a rapid portable nucleic acid test for diagnosing respiratory infections. The judges, all McGill alumni, focused on projects that hold the promise of benefiting society, Weber says.

Holbrooke’s donation is the first philanthropic gift to the Fund, and will be matched by an additional $500,000 from the Martlet Research Trust. As an early contributor to the Fund, he will be recognized as a “Lighthouse Circle” donor. McGill hopes to attract an initial group of “Lighthouse Circle” donors to help bring the McGill Innovation Fund from pilot to full operation.

David R. Holbrooke

David R. Holbrooke, BSc’64, MDCM’69

From space dreams to health care entrepreneur

Growing up in the Toronto area, Holbrooke wanted to become an astronaut – a dream that followed him to McGill where he did an Honours BSc in Physiology.

He planned to do his PhD in aerospace medicine at McGill, but the late Hank MacIntosh, then chair of the Physiology department, suggested he consider a medical degree instead.

“He made the comment, which had such a profound effect on my life,” Holbrooke recounts. “He said with a PhD you get specialized in an area, and you go down an avenue and if you change your mind and you want to do something else, you have to back out and start over again. But if you have an M.D., you can still go and do the same research. And you can go left and right and centre – you can have a much more flexible instrument in a medical degree.”

After graduating from McGill’s medical school, Holbrooke moved to San Francisco for his internship and initially juggled work in emergency rooms with medical research. “The next thing I know – I never in a million years would have imagined this – I got into the business of emergency medicine. And in no time at all I had over 450 emergency physicians working for me, and I had 44 emergency rooms that I’m contracted to staff in seven states.”

Holbrooke sold the business and moved on to other ventures, including staffing medical clinics in the U.S., the Middle East, and Asia. He also created a billing company for physicians that was bought by pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

Holbrooke, whose father attended McGill for his master’s in Mining Engineering, wants this gift to be part of his legacy at McGill, having long reflected on supporting innovation at the University.

Weber expressed gratitude for Holbrooke’s generosity, and hopes that his gift will prompt others to contribute to the Fund, which has a goal of attracting $30-million in philanthropic support.

“We’re so happy that his legacy is that he wants to give back to the University and that he found a compelling way to do it,” says Weber. “We've really started something special, and you can already see how it has energized the ecosystem.”

If you are interested in supporting the McGill Innovation Fund as a donor or alumni mentor, please contact:Naomi Shrier or Nicholas Synnott