Blog | December 17, 2019

Brightspot: How A Biopharma VC Makes A Difference For Orphans

Source: Life Science Leader
Rob Wright author page

By Rob Wright, Chief Editor, Life Science Leader
Follow Me On Twitter @RfwrightLSL

Ed Torres, managing partner, Lilly Ventures.

“I wonder if we could do this.”

Ed Torres, and his wife Sherri, were staring at one another across the roof of their car, doors ajar, and Sherri’s words still hanging in the air when he replied, “I do to.”

The couple had just heard a preliminary talk about the U.S. orphan crisis and been given a handout outlining 10 things people could do to help. “The list had been deliberately organized from easiest to most difficult,” explains Ed. “At the top was listed ‘pray,’ and then, all the way at the end, was foster care, followed by adoption.” But Ed Torres isn’t known for jumping into anything without first doing his due diligence. I mean, what else would you expect from someone who spent 20 years working at Eli Lilly & Company, and 18 years in the high-stakes world of biopharma venture capital (i.e., eight years within Eli Lilly & Company and 10 years as the managing partner of Lilly Ventures post spin out). Without saying a word, they closed their car doors and went back inside to listen to a panel discussion to learn more. That was roughly six years ago, and since then, the couple has been involved in making a difference for roughly 20 different foster children.

Driven To Make A Difference

Ed and Sherri have been together for 31 years. And while Ed was busy working in biopharma, Sherri was at first a stay-at-home mom for their four children, and later, a middle school science teacher. At the time when they first became enlightened about the orphan crisis, they had been empty nesters for about 18 months. “We had fun with that time period, but we aren’t the type that’s going to go out to fancy restaurants every night of the week,” he laughs. So, the two started to investigate what was involved in becoming foster parents. “I started asking lots of questions to disqualify us, because as a VC, that’s what I do.” That led to a yearlong process of discernment, along with some trainings and home study before actually committing in fall 2014, obtaining their license in Dec. 2014. And ever since, they have been involved with helping about 20 different foster children, four being long-term placements. “Our first two, which we got the same day we were licensed, which tells you of the dire need, were elementary age, siblings only 10-months apart, but completely different in terms of how emotionally damaged they were, with one having significant learning challenges,” he mentions. “But we’ve had foster kids with cystic fibrosis, cerebral palsy, and two or three other medically challenging situations.” Torres says he and his wife don’t consider themselves anything special, they just aren’t scared off by the medical stuff.

The eventual placement of these two children took a year and a half, and the Torres’s found themselves emotionally and physically exhausted. As a result, they took a few months off. And it was during this reflective period that they thought it a good idea to put together their family-giving vision. “We wanted to lay out, in terms of our philanthropic journey, what generosity looked like for Ed and Sherri Torres,” he mentions. This was fairly involved, as it required finding charities in alignment with what they deemed important (i.e., ending poverty and physical suffering), assessing, researching, redrafting of wills, etc. And once that was all complete, they decided to jump back into foster care.

“Within five minutes of putting our name back in the hat, we got a call. It was a Monday morning,” he remembers. “We have this little guy in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU),” the voice said on the other end of the phone. The baby could leave, but had a genetic anomaly, requiring a nasal gastric (NG) tube so he could be fed through the nose. “But we’d also need to bottle train him, and so we were told that the foster situation would require three caregivers. As it was just my wife and I, we said no.” But the needing of three caregivers was gnawing at him. So, he started calling around, and eventually was told by a social worker that they didn’t need a third caregiver living in the home, just that a third person needed to be trained on how to feed the baby with an NG tube in case they needed a break. “I was like, ‘Don’t give that baby away. I'll call you right back.’” An hour later, Ed had four people willing to be trained. The date was January 27, and for the next three months, Ed, in addition to doing his day job, worked as a night nurse, up every three hours to feed the baby for 45 minutes at a time. They had this baby for 15 months, and note people being lined up wanting to adopt him, despite his special needs. “Foster care is the hardest thing we’ve ever done, including my spinning Lilly Ventures out of Lilly,” he attests. “But it’s also some of the most rewarding work we’ve ever done.”

You Don’t Have To Be A Foster Parent To Make A Difference For An Orphan

Torres says that making a difference for an orphan doesn’t require you to jump into the deep end of the foster care pool. “Foster care is hard,” he notes. “Having one foster child is like having two kids or more in the house, because you have weekly therapy appointments, appointments with the department of child services, court hearings which can take half a day, etc.” But you can make a difference for an orphan by just making a difference for foster parents. How? By helping them with some of their daily tasks. “Fifty percent of first-time foster families quit within 12 months,” shares Torres. “But we’ve found that with just a little support we can retain up to 90 percent.” Helping with meal preparation once a week, mowing a foster parent’s lawn, or helping with laundry are the types of little things that can make an incredible difference. “Just babysitting for a few hours so foster families can go on a date night or go to the gym can be extremely helpful,” he adds. Check out the National Foster Parent Association (NFPA) website to learn more on how you can make a difference for an orphan.

Thanks to Ed and Sherri Torres for sharing their inspirational story, and to Bruce Booth, DPhil, partner at Atlas Ventures, for brokering the connection. Know someone in biopharma making a similar big difference beyond their day job? We’d welcome your help in connecting. Perhaps with your help we can find more biopharma brightspots to share.