October 2, 2000 holds special meaning for Debi Brooks, now the Co-Founder and Executive Vice Chairman of The Michael J. Fox Foundation. It was her first day on the job.
She recalls showing up for work at the “Spin City” production offices at New York’s Chelsea Piers. It was a Monday when she sat down with Michael J. Fox. This was only their second meeting since their initial encounter only days earlier at her job interview. Together with Nelle Fortenberry, a Foundation Board member and Michael’s longtime friend and producing partner, they outlined the core principles that still guide the Foundation today: a sense of urgency and responsibility to the patient community; transparency and accountability about the Foundation’s actions; and productivity of donor contributions. “When people came forward to help, we knew we had to act with their best interests and ours in mind,” Debi says.
The opportunity to take on this formidable new role had come up quickly. “But it was full of promise and excitement,” she says. She learned of the job through a former colleague at Goldman Sachs. He knew Michael J. Fox was looking for someone with a business background and immediately thought of Debi. Her interest was piqued. She also knew to trust his recommendations: her former colleague had also introduced her to her future husband, Jeff, whom she would marry that November. “Nice work!” she says.
“Today, I think back to how naive and uninformed I was — there was much to learn” she says. “But that served us well, too. Even though I have never met a PD patient and certainly couldn’t spell dyskinesia, I knew I was in for a crash course in understanding the science and the business of the science.” This forced Debi to ask a lot of questions to get educated and get started, which she considers a “metaphor for rethinking what’s possible.
As Michael J. Fox describes in his memoir, Lucky Man, he envisioned “an organization built for speed, eschewing bureaucracy and taking an entrepreneurial approach toward helping researchers do what they say can be done” find a cure for Parkinson’s...” But before Debi could create something for which there was “no existing blueprint,” as Michael acknowledges, she had to determine her first action. Her goal before the year’s end: to launch the Foundation’s first research funding initiative, the Fast Track grants program. Announced in December 2000, the Fast Track program was designed to speed funding and stimulate novel, innovative and high-impact approaches to the field of Parkinson’s research. In April, 10 grants totaling $1.5 million were awarded.
Twelve years later, the Foundation has invested in more than $300 million in Parkinson’s research, driving forward over 100 drug targets. And Debi is even more passionate about the Foundation’s work today than she was on that first day. “I feel really lucky that 12 years later, I am fully energized by the possibilities,” she says
Her philosophy, which has helped shape the Foundation, is to strive for the right balance between pragmatism and optimism. “It’s a fine line,” she says. “And both are so critical to our strategic approach.”
Perhaps thankfully in the early days, Debi says she didn’t realize how low “our probabilities of success really were. Thus I’m all the more humbled by progress of the science and the role we’ve played in moving the dial in a tangible way for patients.”
Professionally, one of Debi’s greatest surprises has been the discovery that she is an entrepreneur — despite avoiding the class on it in business school. “I thought of entrepreneurs as inventors, and I didn’t think I had a product to invent,” she says. As it turns out, she did. “I’m astonished at the impact we’ve had and take pride in the model we have created,” she says. “Along the way, we’ve proven that patient-driven capital can play a game-changing role in drug development.
On a personal level, she says how much she has come to treasure Michael. “I’m in awe of his rare combination of intellect, honesty, determination and optimism. He is a remarkably special person and extraordinary partner and boss.”
What hasn’t surprised her is the continual outpouring of people who want to help. “Over the years, this has only increased,” she says. “It’s a real motivator — and the fuel for what we can accomplish together.”