Young Innovators Network Aims to Boost Leading-Edge Ideas at “‘The Hutch”‘

11/19/08Follow @xconomy

Get ‘em while they’re young. It’s true of the folks who market breakfast cereals, and also in the world of philanthropy.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center has a reputation as a world-class research center, and it has no trouble enticing A-list Seattle businesspeople to join its board and open their checkbooks. Usually these people have reached the pinnacle of their careers, made a lot of money, and are in their 50s and 60s.

Now the “Hutch” is trying to recruit some of Seattle’s up-and-comers, under the age of 45, to start donating much earlier in life than they typically do. This effort, called the “Innovators Network,” is being spearheaded by Scott Hutchinson, 32, a commercial real estate developer who is the grandson of center founder William Hutchinson. The younger Hutchinson’s goal is to entice 100 young professionals to donate $1,000 each in the first year, and to ignite a long-term giving relationship with the center, Hutchinson says. The numbers are sketchy, but only a tiny fraction of donations to the center, something in the neighborhood of 1 percent, come from people in their 30s, he says.

“There’s great untapped potential in the community among young people,” Hutchinson says. “We needed something like this.”

The team at the Hutch has clearly done some homework on how to appeal to young donors. It is scheduling meetings between 4:30 pm and 7:30 pm, so as not to interfere with prime hours of the workday, or child-rearing responsibilities at night. It’s not overloading the calendar with events which would be hard for people to attend. A group of three or four scientists give 5-7 minute overviews of their research in a classroom format, and then plenty of time is leftover for one-on-one networking. “We have to make it fun, lighthearted,” Hutchinson says.

The pitch is all about directing small amounts of money in a way that they might have impact at a place with an annual budget of more than $300 million.

To convince young people to donate, the Innovators Network has decided to funnel its donations into the Hartwell Innovation Fund. It’s a pot of money that was started in 2001, through a $1 million grant from Microsoft’s Craig Mundie, to support ideas considered promising by a panel of distinguished scientists at the center, yet which haven’t produced enough proof of concept to qualify for grants from the National Institutes of Health. The Hartwell grants can be as little as $20,000, to pay for a few months of experiments, which could pay off and lead to bigger support from the NIH. The donations from members of the Innovators Network will also double their impact, because they are being matched by grants from the Geiger Family Foundation.

“Young people can relate to this idea, of the need to give people a chance,” Hutchinson says. He adds that getting the matching grant, and putting the money to work in small projects with big potential is key to their strategy of appealing to young people who want to get bang for the dollar.

The group’s first event, held in July, was expected to draw about 50 people, and ended up attracting double that, says Eileen Harasimowicz, a member of the center’s development staff. The Innovators Network is hosting its second event tonight at the center, and she was coy about attendance figures this time around. Word has gotten around, stemming from a panel of 16 volunteers, although she is starting to experiment with social networking sites like Facebook.

The computing tools may be different, but the concepts of networking aren’t much different from the 1960s and 1970s, when Hutchinson’s grandfather worked to get the center started. Hutchinson talked a bit about getting back to its roots, which is hard to do once an institution reaches the size of a place like the “Hutch.”

“It’s about getting out there at the grass roots,” Hutchinson says. “Thirty years ago, my grandfather was out there on the golf course, nudging his buddies, saying ‘You just sold a company, and you’ve got to give some money back.’ This isn’t really that different.”

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