Dr. Michael Mullan, who runs an organization that studies treatments for diseases of the mind, has avoided a thorny issue that regularly stymies local bioscience facilities: recruiting and retaining top employees.
“We don't have trouble getting fantastic talent,” says Mullan, president and CEO of the Manatee County-based Roskamp Institute. “It's very easy to get people to come here.”
So easy Mullan regularly turns away distinguished scientists worldwide, from Ireland to Harvard. Mullan points out the obvious lures of the Sarasota-Bradenton region, like climate and beaches, as reasons people seek employment at Roskamp. “I think of this as La Jolla without the hills,” adds Mullan, referring to the California home of the Scripps Research Institute, another renowned facility.
But another aspect that keeps the applicant bin full is the Roskamp Institute's somewhat unique approach to its mission. That strategy, which includes three Alzheimer's disease variables, is also how the institute, known worldwide for research, survived the economic downturn that crippled many other labs and biomedical facilities.
For one, Roskamp, with about 60 employees, shuns bureaucratic red tape, the type of tie-ups that often bog down nonprofits. With more than a dozen Ph.D.s on staff from native lands that range from the U.S. to Bulgaria to China, the organization has a 90% to 10% ratio of scientists to administration. That, Mullan says, frees up payroll for research.
A second aspect to the strategy that draws in applicants, says Mullan, is a steadfast belief in research that does something to improve people's lives. In addition to Alzheimer's, Roskamp scientists study strokes, traumatic brain injuries, Parkinson's disease, schizophrenia and Tourette Syndrome. Anything, basically, that helps people with brain diseases. “It's not just research for the sake of research,” says Mullan. “It's to find new treatments.”
The third leg of the strategy is partnering with for-profit businesses, for example selling intellectual property and using the proceeds to fund studies. The institute has even launched a few of its own for-profit businesses. That list includes Archer Pharmaceuticals, an Alzheimer's drug research firm; another company that researches anti-cancer drugs; and a nutraceutical business, where the mission is to combine nutrition and pharmaceutical products and research for alternative brain disease remedies.
“We are very entrepreneurial,” Mullan says. “And that's the only way to keep going.”
Plus, the institute, with its for-profit focus, is a boost to local economic development officials on the lookout for emerging industries. The more local business Roskamp generates, the better it is for the region when companies consider relocation plans, says Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County President and CEO Mark Huey.
Huey, in that vein, recently introduced Roskamp officials to executives with Enzymedica, a Venice-based enzyme supplements firm. He hopes those entities will partner on a research project. “I'm really excited about working with Mike,” says Huey. “These partnerships can lead to business development and then more jobs.”
The institute, with about $5.8 million in 2011 revenues according to its public tax returns, receives about 20% of its funding from prominent local philanthropist Bob Roskamp. The remaining 80% is split between grants, donations and for-profit activities. Although that portion leans toward grants today, Mullan senses the balance will shift significantly to for-profits in the next few years.
Indeed, Mullan cites a sobering statistic that foretells the transition. He says that when he got into the field 20 years ago, one out of four or five labs that applied for grant money were successful. That figure, says Mullan, has dropped to about three out of 100. “It's drastically difficult to get funding,” says Mullan. “National Institute of Health funding has really crashed.”
'Make a difference'
One constant in the funding support during the past decade has been Bob Roskamp and his family. Roskamp, a onetime physics teacher at a suburban Chicago high school, launched the institute in 2003.
The move was the culmination of a career spent helping others: First, in the 1970s, Roskamp ran a home for physically disabled adults in Chicago. After that he built Bradenton-based Freedom Group Inc. into a $150 million senior housing conglomerate. The firm had 2,000 employees nationwide at its peak. The firm also introduced a new business model to senior housing, the concept of a “debt free” senior living community, where a client pays an entry fee prior to construction of a residence.
Roskamp, 74, is active in several other businesses and nonprofits, both locally and nationwide. But his passion remains with brain diseases, an enthusiasm born from his work experience and in memory of his older brother Bert Roskamp, who suffered from schizophrenia. Bert Roskamp committed suicide in 1972.
“We want to make a real difference in diseases of the mind,” Roskamp told the Business Observer in a 2009 story. “If we succeed at this, my life will have meant a whole lot more than it has to date.”
Roskamp's point man in that mission is Mullan, who brings a medical degree and a Ph.D. in molecular genetics from London University to the institute. Mullan has spent the bulk of his career in biomedical research of brain diseases. He has co-authored more than 200 papers and holds several patents.
Like Bob Roskamp, Mullan is driven for the cause. “These disorders cause a massive amount of human suffering,” he says. “The burden for the family could be much worse than cancer, partially because it can go on for so long.”
Mullan says the Roskamp mission will only be a success if he, and the rest of the institute, embrace for-profit partnerships and businesses.
The most notable for-profit arm connected to the Roskamp Institute is Archer Pharmaceuticals, which currently has an Alzheimer's drug going through Phase II tests in Europe. Another key for-profit partnership is with Rock Creek Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Glen Allen, Va.-based Star Scientific. Roskamp and Rock Creek recently completed a successful multiple sclerosis study on how a specially formulated anti-inflammatory agent was used to reduce paralysis of hind limbs in test mice.
One more Roskamp for-profit partnership, launched earlier this year in conjunction with Sarasota-based Youthful Aging Home Health, is Sci-Brain. It's a system that analyzes someone's chances of getting Alzheimer's or another similar disease, like dementia. Roskamp researchers with Sci-Brain created the Brain Reserve Index — a formula that looks at a subject's risk levels for problems later in life, what researchers calls low brain reserve.
After a risk assessment Sci-Brain develops a personalized brain health plan for each client. That can include mental exercise, like mind games, physical exercise and dietary changes.
Mullan's future plans and hopes for the Roskamp Institute go further than the for-profit partnerships, too. He would like to open new departments, for example, including one to study and treat addictions. And a separate unit for studying ocular and vision research recently opened.
One final side to the Roskamp Institute is the clinic, where doctors see patients, enroll some in clinical studies and provide assistance for caregivers and families. That side, says Mullan, isn't especially profitable, but it's nonetheless integral to the mission. That's because everyone at the institute can see the destructive power of brain diseases firsthand.
“It brings home why we do what we do,” Mullan says. “It puts a face on it.”