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A passionate venture

Alum’s $2.5 million gift to Yale Scholars program spurs study of Alzheimer’s

Henry McCance applauds the “can-do spirit” of the Yale Scholars initiative.

Henry F. McCance, M.B.A., has a special knack for spotting talent and helping young people to realize their aspirations. Over the course of a 40-year career at Greylock Partners, a venture capital firm in Waltham, Mass., McCance and his partners have shepherded almost 300 software companies from idea to reality, a track record that earned him the National Venture Capital Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.

When a family member was diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s disease seven years ago, McCance decided to apply the skills he had honed during his four decades at Greylock into a plan of attack on the disease, which has stubbornly resisted effective diagnosis and treatments. In 2005, McCance co-founded the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund (CAF), which explicitly adopted a venture capital approach to fund research “with the highest probability of slowing, stopping or reversing Alzheimer’s disease by 2016.”

So when McCance first heard about the School of Medicine’s Yale Scholars initiative, which provides support to outstanding young faculty members as they embark on research careers, the concept had a familiar and appealing ring. McCance got on board enthusiastically with a $2.5 million gift endowing the Henry F. McCance Yale Scholar, an honor that will be bestowed every four years on a new faculty member in the medical school’s program in Cellular Neuroscience, Neurodegeneration and Repair. Yale University will match McCance’s gift to create a $5 million total endowment, and McCance has contributed an additional $250,000 in current-use funds to ensure that the first McCance Yale Scholar recruit will receive support immediately.

“Startups are often founded by and take their vision from a young, talented person who really ‘doesn’t know any better’ than to take on the incumbent legacy of a corporate giant,” says McCance, a 1964 alumnus of Yale College. “They haven’t been told it can’t be done, so they go do it. The idea of supporting the best up-and-coming research talent under the Yale Scholars program embodies that sort of entrepreneurial can-do spirit.”

Robert J. Alpern, M.D., dean and Ensign Professor of Medicine, says, “I am delighted that Henry has chosen to support our efforts to find a treatment for Alzheimer’s, and I am especially excited that he will do this through the Yale Scholars program, which focuses support on young investigators.”

Yale ties are strong in McCance’s family. His father, Thomas McCance, a member of Yale’s Class of 1925, was a partner at Brown Brothers Harriman and Co. in New York City, and his brother, Thomas McCance Jr., graduated from the university in 1955. Henry says that his father’s example inspired him to study economics at Yale. “I grew up with it at the kitchen table, and then continued at Yale.”

McCance went on to earn a master’s degree at Harvard Business School and then worked for two years for the Department of Defense during the Vietnam War. Venture capital was a new idea then, but McCance moved into the field soon after. In 1966 it was a nascent industry, and I wanted to get away from the 28,000-person office building that the Pentagon represented into something very entrepreneurial.”

When Greylock began aggressively investing in software companies in the 1970s, that industry was out of favor with investors, but it soon became McCance’s specialty. “Most people thought that hardware investments were more interesting and exciting,” McCance says. “We took a contrarian view. Now software touches every part of our lives in business and in the home.”

McCance says he now devotes about 40 percent of his time to his new foundation, sounding a clarion call about the urgent need to cure Alzheimer’s disease. He sees philanthropic channels like the Yale Scholars initiative and the CAF as necessary in an age of across-the-board cuts in National Institutes of Health research funding, and as a remedy for disproportionately low funding for Alzheimer’s disease in particular.

“Even though the disease was discovered 100 years ago, there is remarkably little understanding of the disease or effective therapeutics,” he says. “Statistics say that two out of five people will have Alzheimer’s by age 85 if there isn’t a cure. If you compare the research dollars spent on this disease to HIV/AIDS, cancer or heart disease, it’s out of synch. We’re not spending enough in this country to cure this disease.”