Urgency And Optimism: Corporate Culture The Michael J. Fox Foundation Way

CEO Todd Sherer wants to put the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF)–the world’s largest private funder of Parkinson’s Disease research–out of business, all in the name of finding the cure.

Urgency And Optimism: Corporate Culture The Michael J. Fox Foundation Way


Todd Sherer wants to put the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF)–the world’s largest private funder of Parkinson’s Disease research–out of business. That may sound strange, especially considering that if Sherer achieves that goal as CEO of the Foundation, he’ll be out of a job. But it will also mean they’ve found a cure for Parkinson’s, a chronic, degenerative neurological disorder that affects one million people in the United States, and more than 5 million worldwide.  

To date, the MJFF has contributed more than $275 million toward its goal of finding a cure by focusing on innovation. And agility. The Foundation reviews roughly 800 Parkinson’s grant proposals annually, but you won’t find them gathering dust on someone’s desk. Sherer asserts that decisions are made in a matter of weeks, and MJFF currently counts about 250 active research collaborations and projects. As money is raised, it gets poured right back into research. 

As one of MJFF’s first in-house scientists, Sherer (who holds a PhD in neuroscience from the University of Virginia) is particularly keen on the new Fox Trial Finder, a tech tool that pairs Parkinson’s patients with clinical research trials–a vital component in the development of new treatments and ultimately a cure.

Sherer’s background in scientific research has influenced his management style, which, he tells Fast Company, takes a similar approach. From helping drive the direction of the research to becoming CEO in May 2011, Sherer’s used partnering, teaching, and mentoring to build an MJFF team that’s committed to keeping an experimental approach. Until a cure is found, Sherer says the culture of the organization continues to mirror Fox’s vision, “which is all about urgency and optimism.” 

Making the Big Switch

Sherer says moving from the lab to the corner office was an evolution of his interests and responsibilities. “I joined the foundation with desire to do something more impactful for patients rather than for an individual lab and individual projects. When you have to be the world’s expert on that particular project, you can lose sight of the context.” When his original fellowship from MJFF required him to report on progress in front of its staff and scientific board, Sherer began to understand how managing science could accelerate the progress of finding a cure. 


Fast Tracking–Even With Big Pharma

When potential funding partners are big companies with ingrained hierarchies and bureaucracies, it wouldn’t be surprising for things to move at a glacial pace. Sherer’s managed to make significant progress and stay true to MJFF’s nimble goals. To date, MJFF has secured nine industry partners on its landmark clinical study to discover biomarkers for PD progression in patients. On the roster are Abbott Laboratories, Biogen Idec, Covance, GE Healthcare, Genentech, Merck, Pfizer, and Roche. 

“We try to use our flexibility to take on initiatives that large companies and institutions wouldn’t be able to accomplish on their own,” says Sherer. “Then we can be the glue that allows these projects to happen.”

By remaining focused on research, Sherer says MJFF is seen as a credible partner with a solid reputation.

Making Smooth Transitions

Sherer started with MJFF in 2004 and became head of research just two years later. Reporting directly to then-CEO Katie Hood gave Sherer the insight he needed into strategy and different projects. “I had a lot of relationships with key constituents in research and with industry partners from day one,” he adds.


The key to a smooth transition and getting the team behind him was good communication. “We had open communication with staff about the change. [Katie] was very supportive of me. She was open about her reasons for moving on and putting me in the lead. I also had one-on-one meetings with her to understand challenges and be up to speed right away,” he explains.

Finding Your Leadership Style

Sherer says what enjoys most about his job is driving for results. He says, “This may come as a surprise for a science guy, but I played a lot of basketball in high school. The first time I was someone’s boss was when I was a coach at a summer camp.” What he enjoyed then was leading by example and working with the other coaches to push for results. He loved team sports because a player’s contribution could have an impact on others. For example, he says “You can play in the back of the field and still help another team member score.” 

Teamwork is critical at MJFF, as scientific research is all about collaboration. “It’s not just about one scientist who is working in isolation who may have a eureka moment, it’s about having a unifying, driving force behind you.”

To get buy-in for new projects, Sherer says one of the main concepts is inclusiveness. “We work closely with other PD foundations that all have a stake in the game. It’s an important approach to increase adoption, in same way getting collaborative feedback from partners to make changes keep things fresh and constantly evolving.”

Eye on the Prize


 Sherer admits that if he ever doesn’t know what to do he’s got a veritable army of support behind him. “I feel fortunate at MJFF that the people in senior positions have a really good understanding of the mission and goals.” Within the organization, Sherer says he’s got a wealth of trusted advisors and a 40-person scientific advisory board. “I have different panels of experts who all care deeply and help us achieve our goals.”

Keeping an eye on the prize is only part of the way to reach the goal, scientific or otherwise, Sherer says. For PD research he says “I think that one of the most important things is getting assessment and input from patients to define the biggest medical needs.” From there, you must lay out a specific plan to get there. “There are limited resources and limited funding. If everyone is rowing the boat in the same direction, we can make the biggest impact for patients.”

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[Image: Flickr user Esther Simpson]


About the author

Lydia Dishman is a reporter writing about the intersection of tech, leadership, and innovation. She is a regular contributor to Fast Company and has written for CBS Moneywatch, Fortune, The Guardian, Popular Science, and the New York Times, among others.