There were few winners in the National Institutes of Health budget last year in Minnesota’s biomedical research community. Just a dozen entities got more NIH money in 2013, while nearly four times that many got less. Among the winners were an Edina firm that produces training videos for caregivers, nursing homes and hospitals on how to interact with people with dementia, and a Chaska company working on a possible cancer cure and microscopic capsules to deliver vaccines.
John Hobday started HealthCare Interactive Inc. in 1997 to begin making training materials for memory loss and got his first federal grant a few years later, just as the scourge of Alzheimer’s disease was beginning to hit baby boomers. His NIH grants totaled $1.4 million last year, up 76 percent over his average of just over $806,000 in the preceding four years.
“I’ve been very lucky,” Hobday said. “But you know, when you get the grant you still have to do the work.”
Hobday said grants are a major part of his company’s budget and that despite his success, “the grants are becoming more and more difficult to get.” He hopes to wean the company from them eventually.
Hobday said 62,509 people have been trained through his primary software product, HealthCare Interactive CARES. He said he’s now working on a training program for hospital workers, who may lack appropriate techniques for dealing with memory loss patients.
Chaska resident Gretchen M. Unger founded the biomedical research company GeneSegues in 1999, but it took until 2003 to get started on a large study backed by a $250,000 NIH grant. “It was crucial to get that first grant to start this company and hire our first outside employee,” said husband Robert Unger, who handles the business side while Gretchen oversees the research and development team.
From 2009 through 2012 they averaged $188,000 a year in NIH grants, but got a big boost last year with grants totaling $500,000. The money funds an anti-cancer treatment that attacks solid tumors using 20-nanometer capsules to deliver drugs in a way that mimics how a virus acts. He said the company is also working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on a vaccine for dengue fever, a sometimes fatal mosquito-borne disease.
“Grants are really important because the government takes a risk on leading-edge technologies that’s hard to find private investment to do.”