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Meet the Woman Creating Our Future

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First things first: What, exactly, are the life sciences?

They’re all the “good stuff”, explains Donna Gentile O’Donnell, Ph.D., and by that she means the hard sciences, the micro technology, the miracle medicines, the diagnostic tools, the environmental breakthroughs, the data retrieval, and the food, nutrition and patient care research that can prolong both the length and the quality of human life. In other words, for most of us, the life sciences are the applied brainstorms that make life so much more worth loving.

The other good news is that for the last 40 years or so, greater Philadelphia has been as strategically positioned for life sciences advances as any region in the country. There are approximately 700 schools, companies, labs, high tech research facilities, and other organizations dedicated to the life sciences in this area – many of them are among Philadelphia’s employment leaders.

While it may be accurate to say that the manufacturing base has declined and decayed in Southeastern Pennsylvania, it is equally correct to say that the research and development sector has never been better.

In this rarefied world of high risk/high reward research and investment, the rock stars are the struggling entrepreneurs, fueled by equal parts of inspiration and stubbornness. They have accumulated their knowledge, peered through their microscopes, earned their multiple degrees, and glimpsed their visions. They are convinced they can change the world – or, at least some significant part of it – and because so many of them prove right about that the smart money hates to bet against them.

The next time a headline-making advancement in bio-science or medicine is announced by one of these lab-rat entrepreneurs, there’s a very good chance that Donna Gentile O’Donnell’s delicate fingerprints will be all over it, thanks, in part, to her pursuit of that smart money.

In a career that has ranged from medicine, to Philadelphia Department of Health administration, to public policy advocacy, to campaigning for elective office (City Council at-large), to running a major non-profit, she’s now in the business of bio-medical miracle-making – she goes out and finds the money that makes the breakthroughs feasible.

Connecting Technology With People’s Lives

And, this is where Donna Gentile O’Donnell comes in, literally. At this precise moment, she has hurriedly swept into her office, just off the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, behind the Four Seasons. The chic location works well for her. It underscores her status as the reigning muse (think Dr. Cuddy on House, but even hotter) of these budding geniuses of the life sciences.

She wastes little time in demonstrating her grasp of the mating of the visionary with the practical. A big, shiny, chrome-platted jukebox dominates her outer office. It works, too, and in no time at all, she and her guests are gently moving to the Happy Days black vinyl records that the machine lifts and deposits on the turn-table, song after song. It’s almost like watching a demonstration of Robbie-the-Robot from an old sci-fi movie.

“I needed some kind of an object, some icon, that would symbolize in a very visual way the connection between technology and the way we live,” she explained. As the last song ends, she dances her way into an office that everywhere recalls her own background in politics and policy.

Her husband is attorney Bob O’Donnell, the former speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and one of the most honest and qualified candidates to ever run for Governor of the Commonwealth. Both of them worked hard and smart on that Democratic primary campaign, but Bob O’Donnell ran into the Bob Casey (the father) meat-grinder of the western Pennsylvania county machine that hates all things Philadelphian and the obstinacy of single-issue voters (abortion).

After that experience Bob O’Donnell left politics and his wife re-launched a career in public policy that had begun during the first Ed Rendell mayoral term when she served as the city’s Health Commissioner for policy and planning. Those were dark days; indeed, with the city’s health policies pretty much in the pre-computer era. Mrs. O’Donnell’s history with the morass of Philadelphia’s healthcare dates back to the decline and fall of the old Philadelphia General Hospital.

The politics of the collapse surrounding that institution formed the basis of her Ph.D. dissertation. Later, she turned that painstaking research and keen assessment into the best book ever written on a city-run county hospital, Provider of Last Resort.

Chasing the Money

Most of the time, the main thing standing in the way of getting the bio-medical wonders out of the laboratory and into the clinical treatment of patients is money. And, not just any money, either. This is investment money, risk money, dream-making money, push-the-pot-to-the-middle-of-the-table money — venture capital to be spent on unproven technology or medicine.

As she explains it, there has never really been a “good” time to go out in search of that kind of financing. Bankers have an instinctive aversion to start-up companies; grant money is supposed to be about research, not some visionary’s projected profits, and most of the individuals wealthy enough to underwrite a new venture of any kind, expect ownership in return. The slope is indeed slippery.

The country’s current, prevailing conditions of massive government spending on war, a recession that sinks deeper every day, and much of the profit sector of the American economy in free-fall, have all combined to make this pursuit of venture capital for entrepreneurial purposes more difficult right now than it has been at any time in history – and that includes The Great Depression, when desperation aided the cause of inventiveness.

Yet, this is where Donna Gentile O’Donnell, petite, passionate and darkly alluring spends her days. She may have one of the most challenging jobs in the world.

“I connect the dots,” she says modestly. “That’s a simplification, but, really, my role is to show people how to get from where they are to where they need to be. And, of course, I try to help them along the way because so many of the things they’re working on have the potential to save, or change for the better, so many lives, in very dramatic ways.”

Mrs. O’Donnell would know all about that. Back at the beginning, her beginning, she was a critical care nurse. That’s still the way she sees her place in the universe. The people who come to her for help are very much like her patients from her nursing days. And it’s her mission to make them better.

The Life Sciences Portfolio

These days Mrs. O’Donnell works for the Eastern Technology Council as the managing director of that organization’s life sciences portfolio. She also holds hands, inspires confidence, calms nerves, urges people not to give up and, naturally, chases money in that capacity. Former Governor Tom Ridge probably deserves the most credit for having the foresight to urge business leaders and financiers to create the ETC.

“The Council exists,” Mrs. O’Donnell explains, “mainly because of the infrastructure that are here in terms of bio-medical research and development, grouped around colleges and universities and our teaching and research hospitals.” You could also throw in the huge market share that many of the pharmaceutical companies located in and around Philadelphia enjoy, although that particular picture is always changing, thanks to mergers and acquisitions.

California had its Silicon Valley and Massachusetts had been working diligently to develop the high tech identity of the Boston to Cambridge corridor. But Pennsylvania was, as usual, dangerously behind the times.

“Tom Ridge understood some fundamental truths,” she goes on. “The future would be in global market places. Venture capital mattered. Finding money short-term to bridge funding gaps was essential. The growth of healthcare and the research supporting that business was the best thing this part of the state had going for it in terms of employment.”

Governor Ridge’s terms in office, before being pulled away to launch the department of Homeland Security, in Washington, happened to coincide with the settlement of the federal government’s lawsuits against the big tobacco companies. Pennsylvania’s share amounted to approximately $11 billion.

“Governor Ridge,” she says, picking up the story, “convinced the state legislature to invest about 98 percent of the settlement money in healthcare projects and growth.”

That’s high praise coming from a Democrat activist like Donna Gentile O’Donnell. On a day-to-day basis, under the leadership of people like Donna Gentile O’Donnell and Eastern Tech Council boss, Rob McCord, the ETC tries to provide contacts, leads on sources of financing, market information and education seminars for its 600 members. On average, the Council stages some kind of event every five days.

As Donna Gentile O’Donnell pursues her vocation of finding and mentoring the next Dr. Jonas Salk, she sounds more convinced than ever that public policy decisions, especially in the healthcare arena, can have a determining effect not only on how people live – but also on whether or not they will live.

“The life sciences are the new frontier,” she says, echoing another bright young leader from a distant time. “The challenge is to properly manage it and move it forward. I’ve spent most of my life trying to do things I had no business doing,” she adds. “And, I have no intention of stopping now.”

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