Heersink investments pave collaboration between UAB and a Canadian university

The two universities have much in common, as both have moved from an industrial base to an economy driven by health care.

Stream McMaster aerial pictureMcMaster University, Hamilton, OntarioMultimillion-dollar gifts made by Alabama physician and philanthropist Marnix E. Heersink, M.D., to the University of Alabama at Birmingham and McMaster University in Canada will lay the foundations for a close partnership between the schools.

The investments, aimed at creating biotech commercialization hubs and global health institutes at both universities, will spur the growth of a new cross-border innovation economy in Hamilton, Canada, and Birmingham, as both cities continue the transition from heavy industry to health care and service industries.

In September 2021, Dr. Heersink made a gift of $95 million to the UAB School of Medicine. In grateful recognition, the school was renamed the UAB Marnix E. Heersink School of Medicine.

The gift will also establish and name the Marnix E. Heersink Institute of Biomedical Innovation and the Mary Heersink Institute for Global Health. The gift will provide support with both endowed and outright funds for key initiatives of the School of Medicine.

At McMaster University, the Heersinks are investing $25 million, which will create the Marnix E. Heersink School of Biomedical Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Mary Heersink Program in Global Health. The investment was announced Feb. 1.

“We are becoming increasingly globalized. If those two wonderful universities can increasingly tie the world together, I think it is fabulous,” said Marnix Heersink, an Alabama ophthalmologist and businessman who grew up in Burlington, Ontario, near McMaster. “I cannot think of better schools to partner than McMaster and UAB. They are both located in old steel towns, whose economies are now transformed around medical education and research. The universities are young, and that gives them both the hunger and freedom to push boundaries.”

Heersink says UAB’s position as the flagship academic medical center in Alabama, coupled with innovative curriculum within the School of Medicine and UAB’s other health-related professional schools, makes it an ideal partner for McMaster as both schools aim to educate a new generation of health sciences innovators.

Heersink Joomla 3Mary and Marnix Heersink“Biomedical innovation and global health are priority focus areas for the UAB Heersink School of Medicine that align well with our emphasis on discovery and collaboration,” said Selwyn Vickers, M.D., dean of the UAB Heersink School of Medicine, CEO of the UAB Health System, and CEO of the UAB/Ascension St. Vincent’s Alliance. “I have no doubt that partnering with an outstanding institution like McMaster’s Faculty of Health Sciences will expand and accelerate our programs in exciting ways, with the potential to improve the health and well-being of people throughout the U.S., Canada and the globe.”

Paul O’Byrne, M.B., dean and vice president of McMaster’s Faculty of Health Sciences, welcomed the collaboration.

“There is so much opportunity for synergy in these developments at our two universities, both in creating creative innovation for biomedical entrepreneurship as well as fast forwarding our global health initiatives,” O’Byrne said.

John Kelton, a longtime friend of the Heersinks and Distinguished University Professor of medicine at McMaster, likened the cooperation between McMaster and the UAB to a “free trade zone” that could exchange ideas and expertise in biomedical innovation and entrepreneurship, as well as global health issues and research best practices.

Kelton says McMaster and UAB are similarly sized schools, both renowned for their prowess in health sciences education and research. The biggest employer in both cities is the hospital-university sector.

By working together, Kelton says, entrepreneurs from each university can create content that complements the other, combining each institution’s strengths to create the most effective biomedical products.

Once the pandemic eases, Kelton envisions student exchange programs, noting the opportunity for enriched learning.

The American students who study in Ontario, along with their counterparts from Canada who come to Birmingham, will learn about the differences between the Canadian and U.S. health care systems. He says, while Canada’s is publicly funded and cheaper to maintain, it often struggles with patient capacity limitations, and despite the American health care system’s huge national price tag, its privately funded model is nimbler and more welcoming of innovative new ideas. Recent examples include the development of biosensors and trackers, 3D-printed medical devices, and next-generation genetic sequencing.

Mary Heersink says the McMaster-UAB partnership not only will launch a new generation of biomedical innovators, but also may radically transform Hamilton’s economic fortunes, just as the UAB has already done in Birmingham.

“There is so much overlap and similarity between the two stories of both cities and their respective universities,” she said.