Letter from Conference Chair, Graham Duncan

Doug Hirsch and Dan Nir’s genius in setting up The Sohn Investment Conference 24 years ago was to honor their friend Ira Sohn by creating the space for an unusual gift exchange between three distinct professional communities:  the world’s best investment managers, a larger group of investment analysts and investors, and the world’s leading cancer researchers.

In an essay called “The Gift,” the poet Lewis Hyde argued that you can locate any piece of intellectual property on a continuum that stretches from gift to commodity. Both leading investors and leading scientists experience a tension over when to give away their intellectual property as a gift and when to charge for it as a commodity, when to create value and when to capture that value.  Most of us, most of the time, are more focused on capturing value, finding ways to use our intellectual property as a commodity; Sohn has created a unique space where both investors and scientists can turn their intellectual property into gifts.

Once a year, at Sohn in early May, the leading investment thinkers come to the Lincoln Center stage with the gift of an investment idea. They present it to an audience who has donated large amounts of money to be there to hear it—an exchange that, under Doug Hirsch, Dan Nir, and Evan Sohn’s leadership over the last 24 years, has made Sohn a critical funder of scientific research that government funds do not support. It distributes the capital we all raise—or actual gifts, including, in one case, a $500,000 dollar microscope wrapped in a bow — to leading cancer scientists at institutions like Rockefeller University and Memorial Sloan Kettering. Those scientists then spend those resources trying to find a cure for pediatric cancer—the ultimate gift to children and their families.

The gift keeps on moving; it’s not consumed. Or as Hyde put it, “When the gift is used, it is not used up.”

Doug, Dan, and Evan even made a gift out of the Sohn gift exchange itself: over the last ten years, people have established local version of the Sohn exchange to benefit child-focused charities in San Francisco, London, Geneva, Monaco, Hong Kong, India, Tel Aviv, Brazil, and Australia.  Together with the original in New York, Sohn charities have raised over $85MM.

Several years ago, Sohn’s incredible executive director, Lauren Breslow, also conceived of a plan to help scientists share their intellectual property: Sohn funded the New York Genome Center with the specific purpose of facilitating the sharing of pediatric cancer samples and data among the five leading cancer hospitals in New York. The result has been an explosion of collaboration among this collection of scientists.

This year, Keith Johnson of Sequoia Capital, Christine Hamner of White Paw Advisors, and I are co-chairing the New York Sohn gift exchange, supported by a growing collection of incredible host committee members.

Let’s keep the gift moving.  Please come join us on May 6th at Lincoln Center, where we and Evan Sohn will be paying tribute to Doug Hirsch and Dan Nir for their 24 years of service.


Graham Duncan