Damon Runyon News

October 30, 2017

A Conversation with Damon Runyon Board Member Peter Van Camp

September 2017

Peter Van Camp (left) with Nadia’s Gift Foundation Innovator Peter J. Turnbaugh, PhD, and Laura Grant Van Camp, at a windy rooftop reception in San Francisco prior to our Hamilton Benefit. 

Damon Runyon:

You and your wife Laura Grant Van Camp have supported three DR Innovators through Nadia’s Gift Foundation. Why is that important to you?

Peter Van Camp:

The opportunity to support Damon Runyon Innovators is important to me and my family as a way to honor the memory of my first wife, Nadia, who succumbed to cancer in 2010.  Nadia and I were married for 23 wonderful years. Unfortunately, as has become all too common for too many women, Nadia was diagnosed with breast cancer, and we fought her illness together for eight years.  There were some good times during those eight years, and some very brave times on Nadia’s part.  Although we lost Nadia’s battle, finding a cure to the cancer that would ultimately claim her became a meaningful purpose for us, and remains meaningful to me today.

Nadia’s Gift Foundation was created as part of a 50th birthday celebration for Nadia, and was formed as a private foundation to enable us to find ways to help.  It also served to acknowledge the milestone of Nadia’s 50th birthday, which was particularly meaningful because, at that same age, Nadia’s mother and two aunts lost their own fight with breast cancer. Nadia actually lived to her 51st birthday, and was able to see Nadia’s Gift Foundation launched, the realization of a dream we shared.   

And so, today, Laura and our two sons know the history of my past and understand how meaningful it is for me, and they have embraced it fully.  Laura is a thoughtful and committed partner to our efforts with Damon Runyon, and has certainly been part of the selection of the Damon Runyon Innovators. Our two teenage sons (from Laura’s first marriage) have also become active participants and, although it’s too early to tell their career path, both are excited by the Innovators they have met, and both are pursuing an advanced science curriculum in school.  It would be such a wonderful outcome if they were to become cancer researchers themselves, a turn of events Nadia would love.

Nadia’s Gift was founded on the idea that we would find impactful science that could benefit from our support.  The original research we funded was Stanford-based because of the tremendous care Nadia and I both received from the team there during her illness.  Through those efforts, I learned of other ways to help, and I was introduced to Damon Runyon by Andy Rachleff, a Damon Runyon Board Member and high integrity person I’ve known for quite some time.  What struck me about Damon Runyon was how leading-edge they are with the research they fund.  Damon Runyon’s whole model of supporting the best and brightest young scientists really resonated with me because I have long believed in that model in my technology career.  And, frankly, by supporting Damon Runyon, I feel I’m keeping the promise I made to my first wife to direct Nadia’s Gift to the most innovative cancer research out there.  

Over time, I have come to know Lorraine Egan, Damon Runyon’s CEO and an outstanding person, and seen firsthand the great work being done at Damon Runyon.  As a consequence, I accepted the opportunity to join the Damon Runyon Board.  Importantly, though, and through that role, I have been given access to so many great young scientists who are doing very interesting research. I continue to be very focused with Nadia’s Gift efforts, and the Innovators we support really represent our founding model extremely well.  In fact, in just a few years, we’ve seen some remarkable work from them already.

DR: As the leader of a major technology company, do you feel a special affinity to these brilliant and innovative young scientists doing such groundbreaking work?

PVC: Absolutely. Like Damon Runyon’s Innovators, at Equinix, we have a lot of young, enthusiastic, and extremely bright people doing very significant work shaping the future. This also reflects what’s happening in Silicon Valley as a whole. I’ve been here since the late 1980s, and have had a chance to understand the culture and why so much innovation comes out of the Valley. Damon Runyon’s model represents it extremely well.  We’re finding the best and brightest minds, and have the risk orientation to fund new ideas, where the outcome is simply uncertain. We may uncover incredibly important information toward the overall cause; at the same time, a particular research path may also be a total flame-out in terms of actually solving cancer or creating a new drug or treatment. The idea of high-impact investment and risk-taking that may fail is what Silicon Valley has always been about. If we don’t pursue the most impactful ideas because there is too much risk, or too much doubt, then how are we really going to make progress? A risk-orientation model is just what creates success. Damon Runyon’s track record of 12 Nobel Laureates -- Innovators who received funding early in their careers and went on to achieve major breakthroughs -- is an incredibly strong statement of how successful the model has been.

DR: You have been very active on our Bay Area Committee, what makes it so special to you?

PVC: The Bay Area Committee is special because it is a reflection of the spirit and purpose of the people who comprise it.  They all bring a similar passion to their work.  They represent the high energy, positive thinking culture of Silicon Valley, and are all willing and eager to help. Importantly, they really believe in the model. I’ve enjoyed being involved with such a great team, and I am committed to help in any way I can.

It comes down to the unfortunate reality that cancer is pervasive, it touches all of us.  The Bay Area Committee is a group of people who understand that, really care, and want to do something about it. Not surprisingly, the Committee sees tremendous value in spreading the word about Damon Runyon. The Damon Runyon Foundation has been around for quite some time, and its center of gravity has traditionally been in New York, where it is well-respected, and receives a lot of support. Increasingly, though, support for Damon Runyon is coming from the Bay Area, and now about 25-30% of the Damon Runyon funding is local to Silicon Valley. Part of the reason for that is the great research being done here between Stanford, UCSF, and Cal Berkeley. A lot of the funding Damon Runyon now provides goes to supporting science at these institutions. Our goal is to create more awareness on the development side for the Foundation, so the Bay Area understands what it benefits from at least in terms of local scientists, and supports its share of their great work. But I think we can take it well beyond that, as word of the Foundation spreads, and as its purpose gets embraced by Silicon Valley’s leadership, something we know will happen.

DR: What makes Damon Runyon special to you?

PVC: As I’ve said, Damon Runyon is special because of the people I’ve connected with and seen, and how much positive energy they provide. I really respect the Board, the staff, how much they care, and their thoughtfulness and focus just gives me energy. I’m at a point in my life where I want to spend time on the things that are rewarding and supply energy, and Damon Runyon and its people are certainly one of those things.

DR: Where would you like to see Damon Runyon, in the Bay Area and nationally, five years from now?

PVC: There certainly is a need to bring it national. It’s exciting that the Bay Area is essentially a new market where we’ve begun to develop and spend local energy driving awareness and support for Damon Runyon. I’ve really appreciated the time and energy Damon Runyon’s leadership has spent out here to help drive the committee. But, as a long range goal, I’d love to see that same commitment and energy in other markets around the country. Damon Runyon isn’t a grassroots organization in the way it’s set up, so it’s not going to have the broad consumer-level reach that other cancer-related organizations have.  Damon Runyon has a unique, targeted approach, designed to provide support for, and a connection with, a scientist, and that’s exactly what makes the organization so successful. The Damon Runyon model is the one I believe will lead to a cure one day. We need to work hard to spread the word, and reach other communities, like Boston, committed to innovation.

DR: What would a cure for cancer mean to you personally?

PVC: Finding a cure to cancer would be about closure, and fulfilling the commitment I made to Nadia to do whatever I could to help. I’d also have comfort in knowing that, through the efforts of so many people, those who loved Nadia, and others who have received our support, we did something meaningful together toward ending this devastating disease.  We lost an Equinix Board member to melanoma just three months ago, and Laura and I have four close friends right now who are dealing with cancer in various stages. Cancer has had a huge impact on us, people we love, and really everyone. As I said, I believe Damon Runyon is the path to the end goal of curing cancer, and I feel lucky to be a part of it.