Mannings aim for biotech revolution with $100 million gift
In the mid-1990s, Diane and Paul Manning were thinking about moving from New Jersey with their three children. Like many families, they took many factors into consideration.
“One of the kids was really big-time into swimming, so we needed a place that had a good swim team,” Diane says. Also, “I always prefer a college town because it has more of a beat to it, [is] more interesting, [has] more things to do, and Virginia is gorgeous.”
But a third consideration was their children’s health, she adds. One child had Stargardt disease, a genetic eye ailment, and two had type 1 diabetes. “So, we needed good medical facilities.”
Charlottesville fit the bill, and the Mannings moved south. In 1997, Paul Manning founded Gordonsville-based PBM Products, which became the world’s largest privately owned infant formula and baby food business. In 2010, he sold the company to Perrigo Company plc for an estimated $808 million and set up PBM Capital, a health care-focused private equity firm that invests in pharmaceutical and life sciences startups.
Nearly 30 years later, the couple are now among the University of Virginia’s biggest private donors. Their $100 million gift in January will help launch the Manning Institute of Biotechnology, a $300 million project that’s expected to make Central Virginia a biotech hub in the next decade.
The institute’s primary goal will be to develop targeted treatments for diseases that either have no cure or involve therapies that make life hard on patients, such as chemotherapy and radiation. In short, the Mannings hope to fund a medical revolution that will lead to longer, healthier lives.
“When we launch, we will be best in class globally for biotech, because we’ll be the new, shiny penny,” Paul Manning says. “Three years from now, we’ll be on the cutting edge. We’re expecting that biotech, large pharma, will come in and set up satellite facilities here to take advantage of this ecosystem that’ll be here in Charlottesville.”
And yet, the impetus for this grand idea started at home.
“We’re very definitely motivated in the science direction because of having kids with issues, and we decided early on … that was our goal: to try to make a change in those diseases and, obviously, just moving technology forward in medicine. For us, it was a pretty, pretty easy decision,” Diane Manning says.
“Diane’s right, because we had a defined mission. It was given to us because of the kids,” Paul adds. “It’s not as glamorous as other types of philanthropy where you fund a theater, or you fund an art program. Not that that’s not important, but for us, health was critical for people.”
The Mannings are like many significant philanthropists in that their gifts stem from personal experience or passions. For example, last year, a former Virginia Commonwealth University liver disease specialist, Dr. Todd Stravitz, donated $104 million to VCU to establish a liver research institute. This year, a former chemist, Irene Piscopo Rodgers, left $30 million to her alma mater, the University of Mary Washington, to support scientific research and scholarships. The list goes on.
One way in which the Mannings stand out from other benefactors is the fact that they didn’t graduate from or work for U.Va., although they have built powerful ties to the university since moving to the Charlottesville area in the 1990s.
A University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate, Paul Manning and his wife, Diane, have contributed more than $6 million toward diabetes and COVID-19 research at U.Va. They started funding diabetes research more than two decades ago, Paul Manning says.
“It was probably in the early 2000s, because the baby formula company took off in small-town America and Gordonsville,” he recalls. “I guess as we started growing that business, certainly [U.Va.’s] development people knew about us. We were interested in funding science. We met lots of the diabetic community here.”
Over the years, he served on several UVA Health and university committees and boards, including the President’s Advisory Committee.
And in May 2020, U.Va. announced a $1 million gift from the Mannings to establish the Manning Fund for COVID-19 Research, which was used to fast-track research on expanding testing and developing therapies and vaccines for the coronavirus, which was then still a new threat.
Melur “Ram” Ramasubramanian, U.Va.’s vice president for research, remembers the first days of the pandemic, before vaccines were available, and the relief he felt after the Mannings’ gift was announced. “We had nothing. We had no mass testing available yet. [Paul Manning] talked about testing possible treatments [and] wanted to reopen society.”
After receiving 52 COVID-related proposals, U.Va. awarded funding to nine projects. Some of those Manning-funded projects include a collaboration between Dr. Steven Zeichner of UVA Health and Virginia Tech’s Dr. Xiang-Jin Meng to develop a COVID-19 vaccine that would likely cost $1 per shot. For another project, U.Va. faculty members Dr. Kenneth Brayman and Dr. Bill Petri identified three possible therapies for treating acute and long COVID.
As with the biotech institute, Manning’s emphasis in the COVID fund was translational research — moving possible treatments past the idea stage into clinical trials and, ultimately, commercial production.
“He’s incredibly knowledgeable and incredibly well-connected,” Ramasubramanian says of Manning. “His own company invests in these types of technology anyway.”
Through his work in backing health care startups since 2010, Paul Manning says, he’s learned that cellular medicine is the key to treatments for many different medical conditions, including those that currently lack a cure.
For example, with diabetes, “it’s taken 25 years to get to this point. … They’ll be able to implant cells in the body that will make insulin. They’ll be able to manipulate these cells to be able to not be attacked by the immune system. That research is going on now,” Manning says, pointing to a Harvard researcher’s work with stem cells that can be changed to islet cells that produce insulin, which helps control the level of glucose in a patient’s blood.
“The first few patients … did extremely well, and now they are going into a bigger study with a major pharma company in order to use that cellular medicine to fix diabetes,” he notes. “My guess is that genetics is 80%, 90% of the reason people come down with diseases, including cancers and Alzheimer’s [and] ALS — even, I think, depression and other mental illnesses are all genetics. I think we’re getting closer to finding out why.”
The idea for the institute arose in mid-2021. “Diane and I wanted to do a major philanthropic project that is impactful,” Manning explains. “We’ve done a lot of things here, incrementally. We’ve put millions of dollars into incremental research at U.Va. and other places in order to move this cellular science forward, but … sometimes in order to be able to have an impact, you have to make a large investment.”
But also, he and U.Va.’s leaders wanted to persuade state legislators to include $50 million in their 2022-24 budget for the project. They succeeded in that, although it took about 20 visits to Richmond during the 2022 General Assembly session.
“Massachusetts and North Carolina and Maryland have invested billions of dollars in next-generation medicine, and Virginia needed to do that,” Manning says. “Meeting the legislators, having to educate them why this is important to the state and why it’s important to their constituents was necessary, but it was a lot of work.”
Ultimately, U.Va. pledged $150 million toward the project as well.
Dr. Craig Kent, UVA Health’s CEO and U.Va.’s executive vice president for health affairs, says that the biotech institute, which the university expects to open in 2027, will employ about 100 researchers and their core staffs, and, in addition to between 30,000 and 40,000 square feet of lab space, the institute will include a biomanufacturing center to produce treatments and medications in-house. Currently, U.Va.’s manufacturing space is just 7,500 square feet and is used to produce treatments for type 1 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease.
Ramasubramanian says that five years ago, when he was hired by U.Va., “I wasn’t thinking about translational research. The focus was on the need for wet lab space.” But now, as one of six university leaders who have hired an architect and are tasked with “moving this project to completion,” Ramasubramanian says, he realizes that the institute will help create jobs and give U.Va. the ability to produce drugs on a much greater scale.
“The vision is that we will have faculty and scientists working in the lab,” he says. “Clinical trials from other companies would take place there, also people scaling up innovations. It’s going to attract like a magnet.”
As for the Mannings, “they could have chosen anywhere,” Ramasubramanian says. “Their passion for Virginia came through.”
The personal side
Paul and Diane Manning have a funny story about how they met nearly 40 years ago. “We met on a street corner,” Diane says with a laugh — clearly, it’s a story they’ve told more than a few times.
“We met in Washington, D.C.,” Paul adds. “I was going to work one Saturday morning, and Diane was going to nursing school there, anesthesia school. I was driving up towards work, and I saw her standing there early Saturday morning, near Adams Morgan at a little music festival. I pulled the car over, and I walked across the street and introduced myself.”
“A little different than the average,” Diane notes.
After marrying, the couple settled in central New Jersey, where Paul Manning was involved in pharmaceutical manufacturing, and they had three children. In 1996, they moved to the Charlottesville area, and in addition to building PBM Products, they got involved with several nonprofits, including the local Boys & Girls Clubs chapter, food banks and the Paramount Theater.
Living in the countryside of eastern Albemarle County, the Mannings are starting a winery, raising horses and enjoying spending time with their grandchildren. Their daughter temporarily lives in Barcelona, and one son lives in Manhattan, but they come back to Virginia for visits, and their other son lives locally. Diane Manning and a friend also recently finished hiking the Appalachian Trail in sections — 2,200 miles total.
“We would go anywhere from 10 days if we were in Virginia and the weather looked great,” she says. “Twenty-eight days was the longest we went out.”
The couple also is fond of deep-sea fishing.
It’s clear that the Mannings enjoy the fun side of life, but as for their legacy, they have major ambitions for medical research.
“There’s five or six diseases we would like to cure,” Paul says. “Certainly, diabetes and genetic blindness, but also ALS and Alzheimer’s, and try to have people be able to have cancer as a chronic [disease] or to cure that. That’s the kind of thing this institute should help with.”
Other philanthropic gifts
Virginia’s other major philanthropic gifts in the past year came from familiar sources — if not to the public at large, then definitely at the institutions receiving the donations.
Longtime University of Richmond donors Carole and Marcus Weinstein, both UR alumni, gave $25 million in March to the private university to establish a learning center in their name at Boatwright Memorial Library. It’s the school’s second largest private donation.
The learning center will help support students academically through tutoring and programs focused on writing and public speaking, explains Martha Callaghan, UR’s vice president of advancement.
“This is intended for all students, not just those who are struggling,” Callaghan says. Also, the center will make use of underused space in the library, which is no longer the hub of activity it was in pre-internet days.
As for the Weinsteins, who started commercial real estate company Weinstein Properties in Henrico County decades ago, “this is the biggest gift they’ve ever made, but they’ve been generous, steadfast and now transformational donors at Richmond,” Callaghan says.
Similarly, the late Irene Rodgers, a 1959 graduate of what was then known as Mary Washington College of the University of Virginia, was a longtime supporter of her alma mater — making her first $50 donation in 1980. Over the next 40 years, she donated $9 million and bequeathed $30 million in her will. Rodgers died last year at age 84.
The gift is the university’s largest single donation by far, says President Troy Paino. A Bronx native who majored in chemistry at the Fredericksburg college and then earned her master’s degree in chemistry at the University of Michigan, Rodgers was a chemist and electron microscopist, spending four decades as a consultant to FEI Co., a subsidiary of Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.
The $30 million bequest is targeted toward UMW’s undergraduate research program for students majoring in biology, chemistry, physics, environmental sciences, computer science and math, as well as four scholarships that provide full rides to out-of-state students for up to four years. Rodgers previously funded eight Alvey scholarships, which are named for the late Edward Alvey Jr., a historian and Mary Washington dean.
“One of the things Irene was committed to was bringing out-of-state students to the school,” Paino says, as well as being “very committed to women in the sciences.”
Her $30 million gift, he adds, establishes a “significant endowment for research in the sciences. Something we value and promote here is access to our faculty and allowing students to conduct in-depth research with our faculty.”
Shreya Murali, a Mary Washington senior from Henrico County majoring in biochemistry, received funding through one of Rodgers’ earlier gifts that helped her pursue research on stomach acid drugs as a method for killing cancer cells.
With the funding, she was able to present her project at an American Chemical Society conference in March in Indianapolis, as well as purchase testing supplies.
“It’s been amazing,” says Murali, who’s been accepted to U.Va.’s public health master’s degree program. “It’s given me the opportunity to pursue my love of research. I didn’t think it was possible until this past year.”
There’s another reason why Rodgers’ $30 million donation is special.
Although Mary Washington went coed more than 50 years ago, it has a longer history as an all-women’s institution, dating back to its founding in 1908 as the State Normal and Industrial School for Women in Fredericksburg. Women’s wages still lag behind those of white men in the United States, and even an alumna with the resources to make major gifts might be married to a man who wants to donate to his own institution, causing “split loyalties,” Paino says.
“But alums are showing a significant interest,” he adds. “They see the impact at Mary Washington, as opposed to larger schools. We believe that a transformational gift should help us, particularly students in the sciences. We’ve already heard from some students that this has tipped their [college] decision in our favor.”