Damon Runyon News

June 23, 2017

Robyn Coles joined the Damon Runyon Board of Directors one year ago, and she’s more excited than ever about our approach to funding innovative cancer research.


Ms. Coles, you were elected to the Damon Runyon Board of Directors almost a year ago. How has your experience with us been so far?

Robyn Coles:  Damon Runyon is a real gem. The quality of scientists that the organization is able to identify for support is simply amazing. I have had the good fortune to follow the biotech industry since its infancy, studying it closely as an investor and out of fascination with the transformative impact it has.  Additionally, many of the scientists and CEOs in the life sciences have been longstanding family friends, and I have seen firsthand the impact scientists can have.  I am in awe that Damon Runyon has produced so many outstanding scientists, including 12 Nobel Laureates and countless Howard Hughes Investigators, whose science has contributed to the founding of dozens of biotech companies and ultimately life-saving medications.  This achievement has been accomplished on a fraction of the budget of other non-profit foundations.  It’s just truly impressive.

How did you originally become involved with Damon Runyon?

RC: I became involved through one of Damon Runyon's Broadway Tickets benefits. I attended the pre-theater dinner where remarks were given by up and coming Damon Runyon scientists from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. 

You and your husband Tony support many worthy causes, how do you choose the organizations you get involved with?

RC: We are committed to healthcare and education-related initiatives, as well as human rights causes and the arts as an educational tool.

Why is volunteering and donating important to you?

RC: In terms of cancer, it’s really very personal. Our oldest son Andrew, who is healthy and well, is a cancer survivor. He had a bone marrow transplant when he was 14 years old at Memorial Sloan Kettering. We had such an outpouring of love and concern from so many people that I came to understand the power of individual impact. Our neighbors and friends sponsored bone marrow drives for Andrew when we were looking to find a match for him.  When you feel that much love and compassion it touches you in a way that you simply want to give back. I wrote thank you notes to all the friends and neighbors who supported us in our community, and in the note I wrote "the only way we could ever repay your kindness is to do all we can to help others and to help find a cure for cancer.”  When writing that note, I never imagined my husband, Dr. N. Anthony Coles, would become a CEO of one of the leading cancer companies, Onyx Pharmaceuticals, a decade later.  We truly understand how blessed we are.  Sixteen years later, Andrew is with us when some doctors thought we should let him die, and not put him through a grueling bone marrow transplant protocol because there was little hope of his survival. We have been blessed with so many opportunities, and to see our son do so well and thrive - how could we not give back and help others?

What did you learn through your son’s cancer journey and what advice might you give to a parent whose facing the same challenges that you went through?

RC: I think the best advice I could give is to never give up; always seek the best advice and find the best physicians you can for the particular cancer you’re facing. There is a lot of support, you just have to reach out for it. You cannot get through this journey without the support of family, friends and the medical community. You need to bring as many people around as you can to get you through it.  It’s a tough, tough journey. 

What would a cure for cancer mean to you personally?

RC: It would be triumphant! I think a cure for cancer is going to happen. I am very optimistic about all of the advances, especially the immunotherapy and CRISPR technologies. We’ve been talking about eradicating cancer since the early 1960s. In the 60's finding treatments and cures for cancer was like Kennedy's call to go to the moon, which to some seemed an impossibility.  But, we did that and now eradicating cancer is that next big step for mankind. I do believe that most cancers, not all of course, but most cancers within my lifetime will either be cured or become chronic conditions. When I was younger, many people thought a cancer diagnosis was a death sentence. Now, all of the hard work of scientists, like the ones Damon Runyon has funded, and the federal government's commitment to funding the NIH, which is still so necessary, are paying off. We are now seeing the fruits of those investments.

Why does the Damon Runyon model of providing young scientists with funding to pursue innovative cancer research resonate with you?

RC: I’ve spent time on the West Coast when my husband was running Onyx Pharmaceuticals and the ingenuity of young people, particularly in the Bay Area, who do not see failure as a bad thing, has produced outsized results. I don’t think there is ever really failure in science, whatever you prove or disprove progresses the body of scientific knowledge. Young people by their very nature have a way of being fearless. The young tech titans out on the West Coast went for it, and the fear of failure did not stop them - that mentality breeds success. My son Taylor is a computer engineer in the Bay area.  He and many of his friends believe one day they will create the next Google or Facebook, and that “reaching for the moon" mentality is infectious and can lead to extraordinary results. 

The Damon Runyon model of betting on young and inquisitive scientific minds has created outsized success for Damon Runyon.  Dollar for dollar, Damon Runyon has produced the more decorated scientists than any other foundation in its class.  There is no reason to believe that the same phenomenal success we see in the tech space cannot be duplicated in biotech with seed money and commitment.  Damon Runyon is doing its part by fostering young scientists and making a bet that we will find those extraordinary scientists that will bring a cure for cancer.  And that's what makes Damon Runyon the gem that it is.