During my first semester at Harvard Business School, I was diagnosed with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), a rapidly progressing fatal illness for which there is no cure and no effective treatment. My grim prognosis of roughly 1,000 days was the unlikely start of my journey as a social entrepreneur. I recognized that a model from the pages of capitalist enterprise could help foster breakthroughs in the search for an effective ALS treatment faster and more cost effectively.
ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative illness that attacks motor neurons and eventually affects all muscles under voluntary control. Patients in time lose their ability to move, speak, swallow, and breathe. During this horrible process, the mind typically remains completely intact, observing the loss of each function — until finally trapped inside a failing body.
With the help of some fellow HBS students and friends, I started a nonprofit organization called Prize4Life with the mission to accelerate the discovery of a cure for ALS by using powerful incentives to attract new people and drive innovation. When we founded Prize4Life in 2006, ALS research was progressing slowly. Despite the billion-dollar market potential that an ALS treatment could yield, pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies largely ignored ALS, not ready or willing to assume the risk associated with investing in the disease. I founded Prize4Life with the belief that the prize model, new to the life sciences industry, could rapidly accelerate the field of ALS research and drug development.
Our prizes serve as “bread crumbs” on the path for the cure by focusing attention on bottlenecks that keep us from finding effective ALS treatments. We encourage bright minds, whether new to ALS or seasoned veterans, from various disciplines to apply their scientific backgrounds and approaches to discovering breakthroughs that could lead to the development and delivery of treatments for thousands of ALS patients and families desperate for help. By providing prize incentives and creating open-access resources, Prize4Life enables researchers to focus on finding legitimate, provable and replicable ALS breakthroughs.
Although ALS has finally made it onto the to-do lists of some industry giants, it remains a low priority. Recent genetic and molecular breakthroughs have provided a platform from which further insight can be found, but time is critical. Even now, ALS does not draw the kind of attention — and as a result research funds — that are directed toward other diseases. A cure for ALS may not be found in my lifetime, but if Prize4Life can inspire the research community to focus on this horrific disease, which kills almost 150,000 people every year, and make progress toward treatment and a cure, I see it as a success.
One of the greatest satisfactions about being a social entrepreneur is the power to inspire others to positively change the world. At the time of my diagnosis it was not possible to predict that I would be among the 20 percent of patients who live more than 1,000 days, but it has given me even more conviction that every new day is a reason to pay it forward. Boston has become a hub for innovation and people here are continually encouraging others to achieve their goals and learn from their failures. I’m proud to say I’m a member of this community and live every day with the hope that the prize-for-breakthrough model will ignite innovative minds around the globe to make a difference.
Avi Kramer is CEO of the Cambridge-based Prize4Life.