As a Billionaire Steps Things Up, He Gets Behind Skin Regeneration in a Big Way

You know that science fiction movie where scientists grow a new face for the hero? Yeah, I can't remember the name, either, and anyway, the idea of artificially creating skin tissue has cropped up in a number movies or TV shows. It's also tantalized medical researchers for a long, long time. 

Some funders, too, are pretty excited by such a prospect. 

Take the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation (RMSFF), which is known for being very selective in its grantmaking. While its focus areas include education and human services, health and health care-related initiatives have long been the cornerstone of its giving. Now, the foundation is throwing its weight behind regenerative skin research.

Last week, the RMSFF announced a $2.4 million grant to a team of scientists at the University of Minnesota’s Stem Cell Institute working on a promising effort to grow healthy new skin for individuals that have been disfigured by accidents, burns or diseases.

If that sounds overly optimistic, the press release announcing the award suggests otherwise:

The team has succeeded in taking stem cells from patients' skin, correcting genetic deficiencies if necessary, and producing healthy skin tissue. The next step is to create a biological scaffold that directs stem cells to the sites of wounds or injuries so new skin grows in the right locations and proportions.

As far as medical breakthroughs go, skin regeneration may appear less than sexy. But make no mistake—if successful, skin regeneration and skin transplants could change the lives of many people who've been disfigured, including wounded veterans. It could also potentially lead to cures for diseases such as epidermolysis bullosa — a very rare and horrible condition that leaves children with extremely fragile and hyper-sensitive skin prone to injury and painful blistering.

Schulze is not the first major funder to recognize the transformative power of skin regeneration. Last year, we told you about the W.M. Keck Foundation's $1 million grant to the University of Flordia's Genetics Institute in support of their research to heal skin without scarring. 

Related: Keck Hopes a Mouse Can Heal All Wounds, Scar-Free

As a philanthropist with a very local focus, Richard Schulze may not be a household name, but I'm betting your household has some Schulze-supplied goods. The Minnesota native founded Best Buy, the largest consumer electronics retailer in the world, and since making his fortune, he’s been giving back to his community in a big way, funding countless projects almost exclusively in his home state.

Beginning in the mid-1990s, Richard, together with his wife Sandra, established the Richard M. and Sandra J. Schulze Family Fund in support of local nonprofits providing social services in the Twin Cities. In 2000, the Schulzes donated $50 million to the University of St. Thomas—the largest donation ever made to a Minnesota university at the time—establishing the University of St. Thomas School of Law and the Schulze School of Entrepreneurship.

In 2001, Sandra died from mesothelioma, a rare cancer caused by asbestos exposure. After her passing, the family funded a major expansion of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, where Sandy was treated. And it was the devastating loss of Sandy that inspired Richard to ramp up his giving, establishing the Richard M. Schulze Family Foundation in 2004, with a special emphasis on health and health care. Today, with the support of an expert medical advisory panel, the foundation continues to donate millions of dollars to advance promising medical research, including a $2 million gift earlier this summer to Abbott Northwestern Hospital in support of expanding the hospital's neuro intensive care unit.

Richard Schulze is worth nearly $3 billion. In 2013, he announced plans to expand the foundation gradually from $100 million to $1 billion, and earlier this year, the RMSF announced that it would reassess some of its priorities. Where all the extra funding will go remains to be seen, but one thing's for certain: The people of Minnesota can rest easy knowing they have a heavyweight like Schulze in their corner.