A Billionaire’s Most Important Deal

Legendary investor Richard Rainwater is bankrolling the fight against a disease that has put his life at risk.

Richard Rainwater made a name for himself as a bold investor with a knack for the big deal and an unwavering eye for talent.

Now, as he fights against an unusual degenerative brain disease, the Fort Worth billionaire may be making his most enduring play yet. 

Since being diagnosed in 2009 with progressive supranuclear palsy, for which there is no cure, Rainwater has pumped approximately $50 million into an army of leading researchers and neuroscientists who are working together in a novel collaboration with the goal of finding a treatment for the disease. The foundation expects to invest another $12 million in 2015. Called the Tau Consortium, for a protein believed to be at the core of PSP and many other brain disorders, the effort is making headway at remarkable speed. Research has already led to the development of an anti-Tau antibody, set for human trials this spring. While PSP is a relatively rare disease, afflicting about one in every 100,000 adults older than 60, any new drug could hold the promise of treating Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other Tau-related disorders as well. 

“It’s been transforming for our field,” says Bruce Miller, co-director of the Memory and Aging Center at the University of California at San Francisco, who’s serving as a scientific director of the consortium. “This is one of the biggest efforts, I think, in the history of science to treat neurodegenerative diseases.”

Those involved in the effort say it carries the hallmarks of a Richard Rainwater business venture: Aim high, throw the best minds at a problem, and create a culture where people work together. 

Rainwater is best known as the mastermind investor who helped Fort Worth’s Bass family greatly expand its fortune. Tapped by Sid Bass, a classmate at Stanford University’s business school, to manage the family money, he famously led an investment in Walt Disney Co., which hired Michael Eisner and rose to new levels. After going out on his own, Rainwater joined other investors including George W. Bush to buy a stake in the Texas Rangers and helped launch companies including Columbia/HCA Healthcare, Crescent Real Estate Equities, and Pioneer Natural Resources. “My dad always went out and found the best person in the world to run his businesses,” says Todd Rainwater, who with his brother, Matt, and uncle, Walter, serves as a trustee of his father’s Rainwater Charitable Foundation, which coordinates the consortium’s activities. “And he was very adamant about finding the best person, the Michael Jordan, if you will, of running something like this.” 

Richard’s older brother, Walter, recalled the genesis of the effort, when family members met with doctors and scientists in New York to learn about the disease. “I remember during a break, Richard looked at me and said, ‘If money can beat this thing, we’re gonna beat it,’” Walter says. 

While the surge of funding has spurred research, the real impact of the Tau Consortium has been in creating a structure that encourages scientists to collaborate and share their findings quickly, says Patrick Brannelly, the Tau Consortium’s program manager.  

“Academia is great at thinking up ideas and showing basic mechanisms,” Miller says. “But we haven’t been great at taking this to the next step and bringing these drugs into the clinic.”

The group’s roughly 35 researchers, from throughout the United States and Europe and including one at UT Southwestern, gather twice a year for consortium meetings, where each scientist is asked to provide an update on his or her work. Rainwater made an appearance at the Fort Worth meeting held in January 2014, and at another meeting in San Francisco last July via videoconference call. “Richard always comes and inspires the scientists,” Miller says.

Can a drug be developed in time to save his life? That’s unclear. PSP typically first affects a person’s balance, causing falls. As it progresses, it can lead to slurred speech, weakness in swallowing, and vision problems. Patients often retain their mental abilities for several years, but some impairment can occur. Death can come within five to seven years, though PSP by itself is not life-threatening and patients can live more than a decade with the disease.

Now 70, Rainwater lives in Fort Worth, which he made his year-round home after getting his diagnosis. His family is guarded about revealing too much about his condition, but in a prepared statement late last year said that “he still visits the office for a few hours nearly every day, and enjoys socializing with friends and family,” although “mobility and communication are gradually becoming more of a challenge.”

Miller says he couldn’t disclose whether Rainwater would be involved in the drug trials this year, citing privacy laws. But he adds: “Without a doubt, Richard has been the inspiration for this, and we obviously want to do whatever we can to help him.”

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