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Donors endow SPARK Program to fund innovative research by Institute’s young scientists

Some of the most exciting and potentially life-saving immunology research never sees the light of day because it lies only in the imaginations of young scientists who have no path to develop their innovative ideas.

Two San Diego high tech executives with deep entrepreneurial experience are determined to provide that path. Tom Tullie and Dave Rickey, who worked together as chief operating officer and chairman/CEO, respectively, of Applied Micro Circuits Corporation, have made substantial donations to endow La Jolla Institute for Immunology’s two-year old SPARK program over the next decade.

From left to right: Judy and Tom Tullie, Dave and Brenda Rickey

The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovation in Immunology provides flexible start-up funding so that young scientists just beginning their careers can launch their ideas and generate enough data to attract scientific grants, enabling them to take their projects to the next level.

Tullie says he and his wife, Judy, are thrilled to support a program they believe will lead to groundbreaking science.

“I’ve been an entrepreneur and involved in innovation my entire career, but this is the most exciting program I’ve seen because the ideas these young scientists have are not only fascinating, they have the potential to generate breakthrough discoveries that will someday save lives,” says Tullie, who also serves on the Institute’s board.

Each year, the SPARK program receives dozens of proposals from Institute scientists. A panel that includes Institute scientists, board members, and top business leaders reviews the proposals, selects the finalists, and has each of them present their projects in person. Four award winners are selected and each are provided $25,000 in start-up funding.

The projects now under way range from using nanoparticles to deliver cancer immunotherapy and developing a universal molecular diagnostic test for infectious diseases, to using pro/antibiotics to treat and cure allergies and targeting the microbiome to prevent the infection and chronic inflammation that cause cancer.

For the Rickeys, involvement in the SPARK program was spurred by the couple’s belief in the Institute’s mission itself.

“Brenda and I love the idea of ‘life without disease’ because so many of our friends and family have suffered or died from cancer, heart problems, dementia, and other ailments,” Rickey says. “A lot of non-profits don’t have clear goals, but the Institute’s mission is concise while being extremely bold and ambitious. It may not be fully realized in our lifetime, but we believe with the amazing talent of their scientists, the Institute’s mission is achievable.”

Both Tullie and Rickey have helped attract other donors to join forces with them on SPARK, bringing the total amount of the fund to approximately $1 million.

“A lot of other young scientists have proposed really worthy projects that are potential home runs, but we just couldn’t fund them all,” Tullie says. “We are hoping others will join us and provide additional seed funding to advance some more of these promising ideas.”