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Philanthropist Simon Collins: “I realised I could make a difference by applying things I can do to things I couldn’t in a million years”

by Joanna Lewin | Interview

6 September 2021

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What was it about the opportunity to chair the Catalyst Club that spoke to you?

I felt empowered learning about the scale of Cancer Research UK’s ambition and what can be achieved when you partner philanthropy with science. But I was surprised to learn that just over a third of the charity’s income comes from legacies and the average monthly gift is under £10. That got me excited about the potential to grow philanthropic income by connecting people who could give a substantial gift with the people who will really know what to do with it.

What’s your vision for the Club as it moves into its second decade?

I’d like to start building a broader, deeper base of supporters who are evangelical about the cause, want to commit long-term and can find other like-minded people to help raise both the short-term funding capability and the long-term sustainable funding needed to make real progress. I want us to engage people at the beginning of their philanthropic journey, inspire them to give regularly and help them see the huge impact they can have in leveraging life-saving science.

Are there any areas of our research portfolio that you’re particularly excited to see evolve?

I’m delighted Cancer Research UK is tackling hard-to-treat cancers – lung, brain, pancreatic and oesophageal – because they’ve historically seen less investment and poorer patient outcomes. Another massive motivation for me is cultivating future scientific leaders. I’ve yet to meet a philanthropist who isn’t interested in supporting young talent. Who knows? You could be helping to develop the next Nobel Prize winner. I’m also interested in the interconnectivity between researchers and clinicians in translating today’s discovery science into tangible patient outcomes. That’s something Cancer Research UK does really well and I’m excited to see more.

Has the pandemic changed how you feel about supporting biomedical research organisations like ours?

The huge backlog in cancer diagnosis and treatment has brought into focus the vital need to keep improving in these areas. I hope the pandemic prompts a wave of support for biomedical research charities. We’ve seen how dangerous it can be to take our eye off the ball, and Cancer Research UK has done an incredible job of resetting cancer as the urgent issue it is on behalf of people facing the disease.

“There’s a role for those of us who could never crack cancer, no matter how much resource we had, to be supporting partners. That’s the inspiring thing about philanthropy” – Simon Collins

What does philanthropy mean to you?

When I reflected on the wider purpose of life, I questioned what I could do to give back. I realised I could make a difference by applying things I can do to things that I couldn’t in a million years. We don’t want brilliant scientists fundraising. We want them to focus on cracking cancer. So, there’s a role for the rest of us who could never crack cancer, no matter how much time or money we had, to be humble supporting partners. For me, that’s the inspiring thing about philanthropy.

What would you say to anyone interested in joining the Catalyst Club?

You can directly save lives, you can improve clinical research in this country and worldwide, and you can help defeat cancer. That’s not hyperbole. Cancer Research UK mobilises the best minds, and the only thing standing in the way is funding. I’d say to anyone who cares about beating cancer that it’s possible to make a direct, lasting impact, either personally or through your network. Nobody should underestimate their ability to make a difference.


The Catalyst Club: A decade of impact

We establish the Catalyst Club, appointing a board and welcoming its founding members. We set an ambitious £10m fundraising target to back innovation in the promising field of personalised medicine.

Some of the Club’s first donations help to seed fund the ambitious new project TRACERx. The world’s first large-scale study of in vitro lung cancer evolution, it aims to expose cancer’s evolutionary mechanisms to improve diagnosis, better tailor therapies and predict and prevent recurrence.

Cytosponge development
Donations also support the development of the Cytosponge – a novel early detection device and antibody test for Barrett’s oesophagus, a common precursor to oesophageal cancer.

£10m raised
We reach £10m thanks to the huge generosity of our founding members. Not only does this allow our researchers to accelerate their projects, it also unlocks a further £20m in funding from the Government’s Technology Strategy Board (now called Innovate UK) and the pharmaceutical and diagnostic industries.

We refocus fundraising efforts on early detection, personalised medicine and hard-to-treat cancers, as well as the Cancer Research UK Future Leaders programme, which fosters outstanding research talent.

The Club continues to grow as members host networking events and introduce us to their contacts.

New chair
We appoint Simon Collins as chair and recruit new board members.

Global attention
TRACERx draws global attention when its researchers publish eight exciting papers in the journal, Nature. Among the findings are clues revealing how tumours evade the immune system and how to predict whose lung cancer will return after surgery by detecting tumour DNA in blood.

Cytosponge release
The Cytosponge enters clinical practice, offering GPs an efficient, non-invasive way to monitor people with Barrett’s oesophagus – a common precursor to oesophageal cancer.

New fields, new opportunities
The Club enters its second decade with even greater philanthropic aspirations. We look to new fields, including the life sciences industry, to expand our membership.

Learn more about the Catalyst Club and how to get involved by emailing [email protected]