Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards 2020 Annual Report Introduction

Innovation doesn’t come cheap. But without proof-of-concept to convince highly competitive granting agencies to fund a daring project, many bold ideas are never put into action. This is a particular challenge for younger scientists still establishing their career. La Jolla Institute’s Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology is designed to overcome these hurdles.

This philanthropically-financed program provides seed funding for bold new approaches to diagnoses, treatments, and possibly even cures for diseases that afflict us today. Each Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Award is $25,000 and must be spent within one year. The goal is to enable scientists to generate enough preliminary data to attract additional funding to further their research and career.

In addition to funding cutting-edge research that will help change how we prevent and treat disease, the Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK program also trains and advances the careers of the next generation of researchers. Finalists receive coaching in how to communicate their research to the public and how to present their ideas to funders. Award winners ultimately gain experience in running an independent research project, an important career milestone.

Each year, LJI receives dozens of proposals from its postdoctoral scientists. A review panel narrows this pool down to the finalists who then have the opportunity to pitch their ideas to the public with the hopes of securing funding to pursue their projects. Since 2017, more than 150 donors (see page 22) have generously funded 23 projects, all of which have the power to transform human health and launch the career of promising researchers. We are incredibly grateful to these donors who are empowering young investigators to take risks and fill the gaps between imagination and ground-breaking discoveries.

It is our pleasure to present the 2020 Annual Report for The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology. This report features the results of the 2019 Award winners, provides progress updates from our 2020 winners and offers a sneak peek of our 2021 finalists. We are also honored to share the story behind the Tullie and Rickey families’ investment in the program and hope it inspires you to join them in supporting this transformative program.


Tom Tullie and Dave Rickey, both successful tech entrepreneurs, have a history of collaborating on new ventures. They first met in 1996 when Dave hired Tom at Applied Micro Circuits Corporation and they’ve been leading projects together ever since. As their careers grew, they looked for philanthropic opportunities that combined technology, entrepreneurship and a worthwhile mission.This passion is what attracted them to La Jolla Institute for Immunology’s SPARK program. The program, established by LJI in 2017, provides an opportunity for early career scientists at LJI to pitch their research ideas and win $25,000 to get the work off the ground. After serving as a reviewer for the finalist pitches in 2018, Tom encouraged Dave to learn more about the program and consider partnering again, this time to invest in the innovative program’s future. Together with their families, they made a joint commitment in 2019 that would ensure there would be funding for at least four projects for the next decade. Their hope was that by ensuring this program’s longevity, other donors will be inspired to join them and help fund additional awards each year to get as many of these ideas off the ground as possible.

The program, now named The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology, is welcoming its fourth round of applicants this fall and Tom and Dave couldn’t be prouder. Past winners have used their funding to investigate cancer genomics, explore the effects of type 1 diabetes, better address viral threats, and shed light on heart disease. Then with data in hand, many awardees have gone on to compete for larger follow-on grants, publish high-impact papers and share their research with the public. Notably several past winners are starting their own labs, where they will pursue independent research and mentor young scientists themselves.What will the awardees tackle next? That’s what Tom and Dave are excited to see. By encouraging early career scientists to think like entrepreneurs, they’ve established a program where researchers have the freedom to explore new research directions. We took a moment to check in with the program’s lead benefactors to hear their thoughts on the progress thus far and what’s next.

”With the level that we’re investing here, we want to fertilize something. With the SPARK program, our investment isn’t going to be the tree, but it is going to be the first branches.”
– Tom Tullie

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

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

Q: Do you have any major takeaways from what you’ve observed since becoming involved with the program?

Tom: I’m really happily impressed. I thought there would be good work, but the reality is that there’s a higher level than what I was expecting. Not only have the research proposals all been good—they’ve been getting better. The ideas are inspiring. I’m a very cause-and-effect type guy, so I like seeing how the researchers lay out their goals and milestones. They pitch the projects, and then they see them through.

Dave: I love the concepts too. And the abstracts that I see are very relevant, very high-impact research – the applicants have picked great topics.

Q: Have the research proposals been different from what you initially expected to see?

Tom: Having seen what’s presented, I’m surprised by the range of projects. For example, we’ve had winners taking on projects on the tech side—creating the tools of analysis instead of doing the analysis themselves. Then you’ve got projects on blood cancers and projects on autoimmune diseases. It’s really different across the board. And I’ve noticed that they don’t just do research in their lab specialty, but they tie in other specialties.

Q: How does it make you feel to see past Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards recipients go on to start their own laboratories or publish significant research?

Dave: It’s great. It’s what we live for. In the philanthropy world, we like to give money where there will be a return. This program is really tangible, and it’s good to see.

Tom: That shows me we’re on the right track. When I started out, I felt good about securing the program and getting Dave involved. Seeing how it’s grown since then? It’s really beyond expectations.

Q: How have you made the SPARK program a family cause?

Tom: My kids are between 18 and 22, so I’ve been bringing them into our foundation to make more decisions. This year, one of my kids is going to sit on the SPARK panel and listen to the pitches. I think this will make it more real for them to see the people actually asking for the money and explaining how they’re going to spend it. I think it will give them a more lasting relationship with philanthropy.

Dave: My wife Brenda is a big supporter as well. She and I have both enjoyed getting more involved. Last year was our first opportunity to sit in and review the pitches and meet the finalists. And we got to celebrate with the winners and their families at the awards event, which was a nice way to connect.

Q: Going forward, what developments are you excited to see in biomedical research?

Dave: I would be interested in seeing even more SPARK projects related to autoimmune disease. This is an exciting field and it touches everything.

Tom: I’m excited to see more research into vaccines for blood cancer. It’s interesting to see researchers look outside their field and come up with new strategies to treat cancer. I think that’s one of the most exciting translational efforts to come out of the Institute, and it could be a game-changer.

Final Reports from the 2019 SPARK Winners

Huy Dinh, Ph.D.

“My ultimate goal is to identify DNA biomarkers which potentially provide an economical and efficient test to spot early cancer symptoms at the molecular level in human blood.”

Julie Burel, Ph.D.

“Every infectious agent – from viruses, bacteria to parasites – has a unique genetic footprint, which can be used to identify it.”

Marco Orecchioni, Ph.D.

“What we eat not only feeds us, but also the vast microcosm of bacteria that call our intestines home.”

Sara McArdle, Ph.D.

“Clarifying how the innate immune system and cancer cells interact via super-resolution imaging will accelerate our understanding of the cancer immune response and may lead to the discovery of targets for treatments that more effectively attack cancer while causing fewer side effects.”

Mehdi Benkahla, Ph.D.

“It is important to understand how viral infections contribute to the onset of T1D in order to prevent or reverse its development.”

Progress Reports from the 2020 SPARK Winners

Abhijit Chakraborty, Ph.D.

“SPARK funding is very important because our hypothesis is in a very juvenile state and it requires validation through experimental data. This award will help us build our story, so we can get more funding in the future.”

Katia Faliti, Ph.D.

“Vaccines must be completely safe and effective in all children. We need to identify key signatures of optimal immune responses upon vaccination, and apply these knowledges to improve the responses in the so called “poor responders”, especially the ones with high-risk of infections or immunocompromised.”

Sara Landeras-Bueno, Ph.D.

“The SPARK Awards are a boost of energy, and really motivate me to give the best of myself to continue my fight against infectious diseases.”

Cecilia Lindestam Arlehamn, Ph.D.

“It’s crucial to be able to distinguish between diseases with similar clinical manifestations like MAC disease and TB, in order to diagnose them correctly and provide relevant treatment. Winning a SPARK award would give me an opportunity to investigate this further and strengthen the potential to attract follow-on funding for this project.”

Alex Marki, M.D.

“Through this project, I hope to show we could use elongated micro-particles as biomarkers for diagnosis of sepsis. With better sepsis diagnostics, we could save lives and resources.”

Estefania Quesada-Masachs, M.D., Ph.D.

“Winning a SPARK award would give me the opportunity to explore a possible cause of type 1 diabetes, which could open the door to better treatments and interventions.”

Tom Riffelmacher, Ph.D.

“A better understanding of which cells are involved in promoting the inflammation of clogged arteries in patients with atherosclerosis may give us a target for a new drug to limit the damage following heart attacks.”

Vipul Shukla, Ph.D.

“Our proposed SPARK project will reveal how structures, rather than linear sequences, in our DNA relay information in cells. This is a process we know very little about, and this new knowledge could help lead to better therapeutic approaches to treat many different cancers.”

Greet Verstichel, M.D., Ph.D.

“Model systems are crucial scientific tools on the road to novel therapeutics. In order to take the next step toward our goal of ‘Life Without Disease,’ we need to take our findings into human studies, which is what I hope to do with this SPARK project.”

Donor Honor Roll

Thank you to all of the generous donors to The Tullie and Rickey Families
SPARK Awards for Innovations in Immunology.

Acre Investment Real Estate Services
Amnon and Claire Altman
Applied Materials
Edward and Susan Ball Family Foundation
The Bank of America Charitable Fund
Rita Baudewijn-Vanryckeghem
Becton, Dickinson and Company
Lynn Berman
Richard and Karna Bodman
Mark and Kathleen Bowles
Catherine Boyer
David Brenner and Tatiana Kisseleva
C.R. Bard Foundation
Megan Carolan
Anthony R. Carr
Steven Check
Maurits Cheroutre* and Marie-Louise
Robert and Lynne Copeland
Kenneth and Adriane Coveney
Ken and Kathleen Croff
Cushman Foundation
Kelsey and Patrick Dale
Barbara Donnell
Andrew Dremak
Ashley Durkin
James and Jewel Edson
Marc and Michelle Effron
Robert L. and Dominga Enich
Derry and Lois Eynon
Thomas Ferguson
François Ferré and Magda Marquet
L. Michael and Pamela Foley
Craig and Meredith Garner
Amy Geogan
Gleiberman Family Fund of the
Jewish Community Foundation
Dan and Patricia Gold
Jessica Gonzalez
Caitlin Gould
Stuart Gross
Erin Hall
Dave and Carol Hall
Wilson and Jenna Hambrick
J. and Marla J. Harrigan
Lewis C. Haskell
Katya and James Hazel
David and Nancy Herrington
Peter and Dawn Holman
Gary and Jeri Horton
Ali Houry
James B. Isaacs, Jr.
Franklin and Catherine Johnson
Terry and Linda Kaltenbach
Andrew Kaplan
Gina Kirchweger and Jan Karlseder
Chad Koelling
Gale Krause
Mitchell Kronenberg and Hilde Cheroutre
Kevin and Julie Krumdieck
Ralph T. and June K. Kubo
John J. Lamberti
Cecelia Lance
Christopher A. and Stephanie
Elizabeth Lee
Gary & Lisa Levine Fund of the Jewish
Community Foundation
Richard S. and Patricia Levy
Gene Lin
Shao-Chi and Lily Lin
Aaron and Andrea Ling
Shannon London
Erik and Chelsea Luedeke
Morag and Kenneth Mackay
Robert and Linda Mahley
Richard and Carol Markus
Ashley Marquez
Rodney McClendon
Than and Cindy Merrill
Ecke-Meyer Family Foundation
Miller-Bowes Family Fund
Ernest C. Miller* and Tung-Fen Lin Miller
The Miller Family Fund
Jeffrey E. Miller
Cherry Miyake
Kevin and Pingya Moore
Eleanor Mosca
Shin Mukai
Lauren Murphy
Gail K. Naughton
Joani Nelson
Margaret Ng Thow Hing
Kenneth and Linda Olson
Robert D. and Mary-Lou M. Orphey
Renee and Sidney Parker
Vann and Carol Parker
William Passey and Maria Silva
Ramamohan Paturi
Bonnie and Bill Payne
Rachel and Robert Perlmutter
Hunt and Laura Pettit
Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, LLP
Patrice Purtzer
Erin Randolph
Ray and Jenifer Raub
The Brenda and Dave Rickey Foundation
Charitable Trust
Ira and Kathleen Robb
Dan and Laura Roos
Rotary Club of Del Mar
The Samuel Lawrence Foundation
San Diego Advisor of the Year
Herbert Schnall
Justin and Connie Seng
Sandor and Rebecca Shapery
Jack Shevel
Larry and Teresa Spitcaufsky
Peter and Raydene St. Clair
Todd Steele
David and Diane Steffy
John and Diana Stillwagen
Ken and Sharon Strong
Studio L
Lolly Tharp
The Thomas C. Ackerman Foundation
Eileen and Robert Timken
Tom and Judy Tullie
Aaron Tyznik
Nancy L. Vaughan
Matthias and Natalie von Herrath
J. Mark and Paula Waxman
David and Lila Webb
Carolyn Wheeler
Joanna Wilkinson
Richard T.* and Lucy F. Wold
Beverly Wolgast
Andrew Yuen and Elisabeth Wolcott-Yuen

The donor list above represents all donors to The Tullie and Rickey Families SPARK Awards for Innovations
in Immunology since the beginning of the program in Fall 2017 through October 2020.


Past Annual Reports