In December 2006, Cathy Bonner, a former Texas secretary of commerce, took Doug Ulman, Lance Armstrong’s right-hand man at Livestrong, out to breakfast at Magnolia Café in Austin. “I’ve had it with cancer,” she told him. Her father had died of cancer, and both she and her mother had survived the disease. More recently, Bonner’s friend and mentor, former Texas governor Ann Richards, had died of cancer.
Bonner, one of the original board members of Livestrong, told Ulman they could dramatically accelerate cancer research by following California’s stem-cell strategy. In 2004, California had passed $3 billion in public bonds to fund scientists for the next ten years. Texas, she said, should do the same with cancer.
“For this to be successful,” Bonner told Ulman, “we need Lance to be the public face.”
“I love it,” replied Ulman, now Livestrong’s CEO.
Fighting cancer is so enormous and so complicated that it often feels like a journey without end. The public bond campaign offered a defined timeframe and an unambiguous outcome. The measure would win or lose. It was like an eleven-month bike race, which made it particularly appealing to the hyper-competitive Armstrong, who had retired from cycling the previous year.
“With these guys, you don’t need to write a long memo with all the pros and cons,” says Bonner. “You explain how it’s going to break the mold, and they’re there.”
Armstrong, Ulman and a handful of Livestrong colleagues threw themselves into Bonner’s campaign, which was like the Pyrenees of politics. A back-breaker. Before the public could even vote on Proposition 15, a constitutional amendment to create the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas, proponents had to convince the notoriously fiscally conservative Texas legislature to put it on the ballot.
Over lunch at Armstrong’s house, Ulman and Armstrong convened executives from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institutes and other health-care leaders and formed a coalition. “It was the first time the cancer community had come together to do anything like this,” says Bonner.
Then Armstrong did what he does best: he rode lead. With Ulman and Bonner guiding him behind the scenes, Armstrong emailed, called and met weekly with legislators. One day, says Bonner, she and Ulman stationed Armstrong in the House of Representatives lobby where he won over 65 legislators in an hour. Later, to get the public vote out, he toured the state in a campaign bus called Survivor One. “It was like traveling with Mick Jagger,” says Bonner. “Wherever he is, the crowds and the press will come.”
For the House vote, Ulman and Livestrong staffers watched from the balcony of the Capitol. He looked at Armstrong and said, “Man, this is so much fun.”
But Armstrong found the uncertainty nerve-wracking. “It’s only fun if you win,” he said.
The House approved the measure. The last hurdle for a public vote was the Senate finance committee, where proposed funding of such magnitude faced considerable opposition.
Armstrong waited all day to testify. When he finally got the chance, that night, he addressed the state senators without a speech or any written notes: “I’m not a doctor, a scientist, an economist or a statistician, but I really don’t need to be. I’m a cancer survivor.” He spoke about the decline in research funding that was driving young scientists from the field, and said the money represented an investment, not just in science but in human life.
Armstrong ended with a personal story. His step-sister Maureen was getting married the next day, and he was missing her rehearsal dinner to testify. He wasn’t the only one who couldn’t be at the dinner. “I’m sure the bride-to-be would like to have her mother there,” he said. Maureen’s mother had died of cancer. At this, Armstrong, who “never cries,” according to Ulman, choked up.
The vote that night was 11-0 in favor of Prop 15.
The public referendum was in November 2007, nearly a year after Bonner and Ulman first talked over breakfast at Magnolia Cafe. Now they get together there every year on December 7, the anniversary of that meeting, because the public vote passed.
It guaranteed $3 billion in funding for cancer research over the next decade. Annual spending on prevention efforts will triple, starting with the first $216 million in grants this year. No other state comes close to such a massive, long-term commitment. Biotech companies are opening local offices. Startups are forming. And this November, the newly formed research center is hosting the heads of the National Cancer Institutes and the American Cancer Society at a conference on innovation.
None of this, says Bonner, would have happened without Livestrong. “It’s the most entrepreneurial nonprofit I know of,” says Bonner. “There’s never ‘You can’t do it that way’ or It’s never been done.’ They just break new ground.”
The Senate finance committee chairman, who opposed the bond before Armstrong’s testimony but then voted in its favor, put it another way. “I got run over by a bicycle,” he said.
See more of Doug Ulman at Innovation Uncensored 2011.