PHOTO: SEASONTIME/SHUTTERSTOCK
PHOTO: SEASONTIME/SHUTTERSTOCK

Bipolar disorder, often called manic depression, is somewhat unique among serious psychiatric conditions in that it’s associated not just with potentially debilitating swings in energy and mood, but also with great human creativity and genius. And like mental illness in general, it has been a condition historically underfunded by private and public sources.

That is why we at IP take notice when new players show up in any area of mental health philanthropy, particularly funders with ambitions not only to write checks to individual researchers, but to improve and integrate the entire ecosystem of research—from academia to business—to get effective new therapies to the people who need them.

The donors in focus here are Jan Ellison Baszucki and David Baszucki. They’re both tech industry veterans—Jan was director of marketing at Infinity Financial Technology (she’s also an award-winning novelist and essayist) and David is the founder and CEO of Knowledge Revolution and Roblox Corporation. After Roblox went public in March of this year—with the family’s stake now worth billions—the Baszuckis had the resources to take their philanthropy to a new level.

Personal experience of bipolar disorder within the family led the couple to find out everything they could about the condition. That’s when they learned how limited existing treatment options can be, and of the low overall levels of funding around the disorder.

Significantly, the Baszuckis also learned that no national or international organization was truly coordinating bipolar research or managing the big picture with an eye toward developing solutions for people living with the condition.

“We’re going to try to build it”

The Baszuckis brought on the Milken Institute’s Center for Strategic Philanthropy to map out a path to address bipolar disease and support the development of knowledge and treatments. “I would love to just write checks if I could figure out a way to do that,” Jan Baszucki said. “But what we learned from Milken is that no such organization exists. So we’re going to try to build it. And hopefully, it won’t be an organization that is owned by us, or imagined and run by us, but… an organization that many funders come together to build and imagine.”

In total, bipolar disorder affects about 2.3 million Americans, and about 45 million people worldwide. It’s associated with dramatic shifts in mood and energy, and with disruptive recurrences of mania and depression that may last for weeks, months or years. These symptoms can lead to the loss of employment, strained relationships, feelings of powerlessness and even suicide. As bipolar disorder often emerges during the teenage years, it can interfere with school and professional development.

Yet far fewer research dollars have been steered into bipolar disorder than most other psychiatric conditions. It’s this funding gap that the Baszuckis want to build some sort of structure to address. Over the last 10 years, federal funding for bipolar-related topics was just $1.78 billion, according to a study of the bipolar landscape conducted by the Milken Institute Center for Strategic Philanthropy. And most of that research money isn’t even truly specific to bipolar; rather, the disorder is increasingly studied in the context of other disorders, such as schizophrenia and major depressive disorder, which has resulted in a 50% decrease in federal funding for research exclusively focused on bipolar disorder.

What little giving there is for bipolar has flown under the radar, said Cara Altimus, senior director at the Center for Strategic Philanthropy, where she leads the biomedical philanthropy portfolio. Grants are typically targeted gifts from individuals to universities with no fanfare—and no coordination, she said:  “We’re aware of some duplication in grantmaking, which is what happens when things are done in private, and new funders don’t really know what roads have been paved already and what needs to be done.”

A new research fund

The couple’s first official move is to set up the Baszucki Brain Research Fund, which Milken will help administer. They aim to award up to 10 research grants in the fund’s first cycle, providing grants of up to $200,000 over the course of one year to support pilot research, for up to $2 million in total research dollars.

“Our hope in supporting the field is to advance bold initiatives in science and technology that will prevent the onset of major episodes without crippling the dazzling bipolar brain,” Baszucki said.

The Baszuckis hope to support a philanthropic and research continuum around a range of priorities: precision medicine to target existing and new therapeutics that address individual variations; the connection between metabolic function and mental illness—for example, evidence suggests a ketogenic diet can be strongly beneficial for some people with bipolar disorder; the use of computational psychiatry to explore the brain’s circuitry from a data-driven perspective; how functional imaging can be used alongside neurostimulation to quickly stabilize both manic and depressed patients without medications; and other areas of inquiry.

Altimus said that a bipolar-focused organization—along the lines of a Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research—is needed to coordinate giving and connect researchers around the country and the world. It’s this sort of need that the Baszuckis have the opportunity to address. In addition to gifts and grants, the Baszuckis aim to invest in for-profit companies they believe have the potential to radically alter the landscape of mental health treatment. But their bipolar initiative is still a work in progress, and its eventual form has yet to become clear.

“Importantly, we need to battle stigma by improving science,” Baszucki said. “Only by establishing the biological mechanisms that underlie this disorder will we one day be able to publicly speak of bipolar disorder as easily as we speak of Parkinson’s, or Alzheimer’s, or cancer.”

Catalyzing visibility—and more funding

The research fund is important, certainly, for the discoveries it may enable. But even more interesting and important is the Baszuckis’ desire to do more than simply add additional dollars to bipolar research. Instead, they’ve set out to build a new funding approach that brings coherence and connection to the world of bipolar research and researchers. They also want to encourage new researchers to enter the field, and experienced ones to stay in it. Too many bipolar researchers have had to shift their focus to other psychiatric conditions, like schizophrenia, simply because that’s where the funding was, Baszucki said.

Altimus, who is working closely with the Baszucki family, says the creation of a bipolar-focused organization has the potential not just to bring greater efficiency to bipolar research, but to significantly increase the flow of philanthropic dollars into the field—as happened, for example, when the Fox foundation drew attention to Parkinson’s.

“When there’s the movement of a large player into a space that provides recognition that it’s an important area, you might see a 100% increase in funding due to the sheer visibility of a big funder,” said Altimus. “Bipolar disorder is an area where we feel so hopeful about philanthropic funding being a catalyst to change the space, and drive research and push other funders.”

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