The multiplier effect

$50 million gift expected to accelerate biomedical research in Roanoke

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Print this page by Heather B. Hayes
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Heywood and Cynthia Fralin Photo by Erin Williams/courtesy Virginia Tech

Heywood Fralin and his brother Horace grew up in Roanoke, but took divergent paths as young adults.

Horace attended Virginia Tech and became a businessman, taking over his father’s Roanoke-based construction business before starting his own company, Medical Facilities of America Inc. (MFA), a chain of nursing homes.

Heywood went to the University of Virginia and American University Law School and became an attorney.

One thing they did have in common, though, was a strong sense of community service — and a shared philanthropic philosophy.

Among many gifts, Horace and his wife, Ann, provided the major funding for the Fralin Life Science Institute at Virginia Tech. Heywood and his wife, Cynthia, in 2012 willed their collection of American art to the University of Virginia Art Museum, now called the Fralin Museum of Art.

When Horace died after a battle with cancer in 1993, Heywood returned to Roanoke, taking the helm of MFA and the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust. Under Heywood’s guidance, the trust has supported numerous projects and organizations in Roanoke, most notably the Taubman Museum of Art and Western Virginia Community College.

“My brother was very much focused on enabling change, gifts that would bring about major improvements in the lives of the citizens of the Roanoke Valley for generations to come,” says Heywood, 78. “I believe that also, and in my own charitable giving, I, too, try to make gifts that bring about meaningful structure or permanent change for the betterment of society — although personally, I have interests that are outside of Roanoke.”

The family’s shared ideals were evident in December when the Horace G. Fralin Charitable Trust and Heywood and Cynthia Fralin jointly donated $50 million to what is now the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC.

The donation, which is twice the size of the next largest gift ever received by Virginia Tech, will be used to hire and retain world-class teams of physician-scientists and researchers for the second research building currently under construction.

“What this money does is enable us to continue to be on the very front edge of biomedical research,” says Michael Friedlander, executive director of the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute. “When it comes to the next great idea and being able to innovate, having access to those funds will give us the flexibility and nimbleness our investigators need to move forward quickly. It has a tremendous multiplier effect.”

Institute expanding 
Virginia Tech and Roanoke-based Carilion Clinic announced in 2007 that they would collaborate on the creation of a medical school and the biomedical research institute, which opened in 2010, as planned. The state provided $59 million to construct the building, and Virginia Tech and Carilion together put up $70 million, which, along with private capital, helped build out the labs and hire top researchers at the research institute and the staff needed to launch the medical school.

Over the next several years, Virginia Tech administrators and Friedlander, a leading neuroscientist who had built and led top 10 programs in brain research at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Baylor College of Medicine in Houston before joining Virginia Tech, worked to make everyone within the business community aware of this new Virginia Tech Carilion partnership.

“It was very exciting, and everyone here in Roanoke knew it was a great opportunity, but I really didn’t know much about the operation itself,” Fralin recalls.

That changed a few years ago when Fralin asked Friedlander to speak at a Monday get-together of local business leaders. Fralin was impressed by the level of research being performed at the institute, the impact it was already having and its ambitious expansion plans. C­onstruction of the second research building began in 2017 and is expected to open next year. The expansion will allow the institute to grow from 26 research teams to as many as 60 by 2027.

“In terms of a newly created research operation, it’s small, but it’s unparalleled in quality in terms of the people and the programs,” Fralin says. “Mike’s greatest need as the institute grows and expands is to maintain that quality, and that’s what our donation is intended to do. In order to maximize the economic impact of the Virginia Tech Carilion academic health center, it is essential to maintain that level of excellence that currently exists, and that takes a lot of money.”

The institute is focused primarily on three research areas: fundamental brain function in health and disease, including addiction and mental health; the healing of damaged hearts after heart attacks and preventing life-threatening arrhythmias; and malignant brain cancers, including those that are shared between humans and pets (including dogs, which allows  the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine in Blacksburg to be involved).

The Fralin donation will enable the institute to expand its research efforts into complementary areas, such as obesity and diabetes, which are related to its specialized cardiovascular and brain research.

“This institute would still be successful if we hadn’t given them a dollar,” says Fralin, who has served on the board of visitors at both U.Va. and Virginia Tech. He also has been chairman of the Virginia Business Council and currently is chairman of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV). “But we do feel that this gift will increase the magnitude of their efforts and quicken their ability to grow and reach new levels of success.”

Friedlander, whom Fralin describes “as the best recruiter I’ve ever met,” has already brought in a number of senior world-famous researchers from leading universities.

Among them are Dr. Read Montague, a neuroscientist who invented a new field of medicine called computational psychiatry; Dr. Warren Bickel, who has pioneered the analysis of how the brain values the future to better diagnose and treat addiction; Dr. Rob Gourdie, who is studying molecules (called connexins) that enable direct communication between cardiac and other cells to develop new compounds to treat brain and heart disease and cancer and speed wound healing; and Dr. Sharon Ramey, who has developed intensive new treatments for rehabilitating the brains of children with cerebral palsy.

“Everything here is built around the quality of the programs and the quality of the people,” says Fralin.

As evidence, he points to the institute’s acceptance rate for grant applications to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the country’s largest source of medical research funding. While the average NIH acceptance rate for all research institutions is between 5 and 15 percent, the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute has averaged a cumulative 26 percent grant success rate since opening, with a 34 percent rate this year. 

“That doesn’t happen unless you have researchers who are respected throughout the world,” Fralin says.

Widespread impact
The $50 million that Fralin donated to VTC is the largest gift that he’s ever made by himself or on behalf of the trust. He was willing to make such a large donation because of the major impact the institute will have on the Roanoke region. Already, the institute operates with a $130 million total active extramural grant portfolio and employs up to 500 people a year (including students) at an average annual salary of $93,000 for full-time employees.

“It’s not just the research, but it’s all the things from a business point of view that come with it: the commercialization of intellectual property, the spinoff companies that develop, the companies that will want to locate here, the development of a thriving ecosystem around the inventions that happen here,” says Fralin. “It brings an enormous growth potential and is something that should become the dominating factor of this community.”

He believes so much in the project that he and the trust may contribute more in the future. For now, though, he is focused on getting others to do their part. Since the Fralin gift was announced, the number of substantial private contributions has accelerated, according to Friedlander. Fralin routinely takes part in institute events, encouraging business leaders and others to contribute.

“I’m of the opinion that the more people who are involved and the more often they’re involved, the more successful this is going to be,” he states. “And in this case, that will be to the benefit of everyone — and in far greater ways than anything else that’s ever happened in this region.”

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