David Barnes: From cancer survivor to sparking UCT’s Neuroscience Institute

Although he spent years at the top of SA’s financial services tree, co-founder of the mighty Coronation, David Barnes always let others do the public stuff. So this is a rare interview, only the second with Barnes in more than two decades of engagement. In it he shares a deeply personal journey of how surviving a brain tumour sparked the creation of Africa’s first Neuroscience Institute at his alma mater, the University of Cape Town. Housed in a previously derelict building in the world famous Groote Schuur hospital precinct, the Institute is a multi-disciplinary body which will address uniquely African challenges. It will also serving as a home for many of the continent’s brightest medical minds, who have traditionally been forced to pursue their careers elsewhere. As you’ll hear in the podcast, for Barnes this is an expression of gratitude and a way to pass it forward. One sure to serve generations of future Africans. – Alec Hogg

This has been part of last week’s official opening of the Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cape Town. It was fantastic to meet some extraordinary minds. Graham Fieggen a professor who’s also the director and a bona fide brain surgeon, his longtime colleague – who does the same thing at the University of Oxford in the UK, the top neuroscience institute in the world – is very closely involved in the Institute here in South Africa. There’s Matthew Wood as well – all of those interviews are separately packaged elsewhere – but this one is special. This was a discussion that I had with David Barnes, entrepreneur, brain tumour survivor and the man whose philanthropy gave the Neuroscience Institute its boost into actual creation. David himself is a man that I first met in the early 1990s. He and partner Gavin Ryan started a company which is well known in South Africa. Coronation, one of the major financial services businesses and one that continues to flourish within the South African and International environments. David is a bit of an enigma to many people in financial services. Those who talk about him – and many do – will tell you that he was once a hippie. He’s married to Ursel who’s a PHD in finance herself, originally from Berlin. They are involved under the radar in lots of philanthropic enterprises. They currently live in the UK but visit South Africa often. He’s an “out of the box” thinker and someone who is unusual which I think you’re going to pick up in the discussion. A very rare interview with a man who really is on a mission and has begun something that is going to serve generations of Africans. He comes from Kimberley. He grew up there with his two brothers, first went to Rhodes University then to the University of Cape Town and saw a way of giving back after his own brain tumour was removed.

So let’s join the conversation.

I’m with David Barnes an entrepreneur in South Africa. Well-known founder of Coronation. I spent time last night talking to Gavin Ryan your longtime partner, when did the two of you get together?

We worked together in Merchant Bank and I arrived there in 1981 or 1982.

It’s not often that one sees partnerships lasting that long.

Gavin at that point in time, headed the division that I was in and then I left the bank somewhere around 1991 and together we had the idea to start a new company and it was Gavin in fact who found what was then effectively a cash shell called Coronation. That would have been around 1992.

It’s been an extraordinary story. We’re here in Cape Town at the Neuroscience Institute at UCT. You’ve had quite a bit to do with this but we’ll get into that in a moment. The University of Cape Town is an institution pretty close to your heart.

Yes, I was a student here in the ’70s which was a very exciting time. I was a member of the SRC, so I was quite politically involved. I really enjoyed the time that I spent here and I thought it had life changing effects for me.

1973 to 1975 was quite a hot time in South Africa.

Yes indeed. Our particular SRC would have been involved in quite a number of protests, there were baton charges and it was a bribery time to say the least.

Many old UCT students or former university students are very disappointed about the way that the university has developed over recent times. I guess there are two sides to every story. It was interesting listening to your talk last night where you said the tolerance that is being grown here is something that’s never left.

Yes. I had spent one year at Rhodes University and that hadn’t worked out – I dropped out actually – but arriving at UCT I really appreciated what I would refer to as the inclusiveness, the tolerance and the pursuit of excellence. There are other factors but those are the factors that have really inspired me and and I felt the university had been very good to me and very good for me. Which leads on to my current involvement. In more recent times I had a very serious brain tumour – I’m in a bit of a hypochondriac, I thought I was going to die – and through really innovative neurosurgery I was given another life and it was really in my recuperation period that I was thinking about how to give thanks and how do I give back. UCT was top of mind. They’d made a very big difference to me and so I approached the university, went to speak to the registrar to see if there was any way in which I could make some small contribution. The then registrar directed me to Professor Graham Fieggen who had an idea to found a neuroscience institute and I found that very appealing.

When exactly did all of this happen. Listening to the history from people around, It’s been an idea for many years.

The idea was first mooted in 1976 – just as I was leaving university – and picked up again in 2005. But for all of that time it was an idea that didn’t have legs. Graham certainly had been very active in trying to promote the idea from about 2009 onwards, but the university was constrained financially – quite understandably – and there were a number of other challenges but it really started to take shape in about 2015.

So what did you do?

I’m not scientific I’m not medical but I participated in some of the early discussions on how this collaboration between Groote Schuur hospital and the University of Cape Town could work, ideally being able to take over one of the buildings at Groote Schuur. That included a complete gutting in order to open it up and bring in some new light. They put in 2 floors on the top – which was really very well designed architecturally – to house the institute. Not only that, it’s to encourage interdisciplinary activities and that means that the architecture and the design is open and endeavours to create spaces where people can meet and perform all the normal functions that you’d find in a university, but where some of the barriers that exist between the different departments gradually erode. We see the future as one which is interdisciplinary and collaboration.

What was the building before?

It was part of the original Groote Schuur hospital and at the time it was sort of semi-derelict although it housed the department of psychiatry.

So you had this idea after your own experiences that you’d like to give back to UCT. Why specifically in neuroscience?

Primarily because of my experience. There was a point in time in which I was close to losing my sight, I had lost my sense of smell and I had a very large skull based Meningiomas and I panicked quite frankly. But fortunately my wife was very levelheaded and she did a lot of research into finding who was the expert and innovator in the particular field that I required. That area is called minimally invasive neurosurgery. It doesn’t work for all tumours and doesn’t work for all people but in my instance – it was a very long operation but I ended up with just two stitches in my temple as opposed to having what was known as a bi-frontal craniotomy – I was discharged from hospital after 3 days which was, is in my view a miracle. I felt that way. As it happened – prior to the this operation – we had planned a holiday to go skiing and I was not sure whether that would be my last and there was a fair chance it would. Unfortunately on the skiing holiday, I broke my leg so at the time of the brain tumour I also had a very badly broken leg and the recuperation – strange enough – was much more for the leg than it was for the brain. But it was in that period that I developed an interest – which I’d had to – in some of the innovations that were taking place. I’m a little bit on the second night of my career, it was too late for me to get involved in the science of it, but I feel that these developments in neuroscience, for all sorts of reasons – the dreaded diseases, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s whatever – are not too far away from understanding the mechanisms a lot better and I’m rather hoping that the Neuroscience Institute will play some role in a number of those areas, in particular on diseases that affect Southern African issues. The neuroscience Institute can’t be all things to all people, it needs to really focus on local issues and make sure that the work done has direct benefits for clinical outcomes for our people in Southern Africa.

What it about the vision, the dream that they had for the Neuroscience Institute that got you involved, given that at the time – 2015 onwards – UCT was going through some pretty hectic challenges?

Yes I guess I was most inspired by Professor Fieggen and – amongst other things – I witnessed an operation that he was performing on a young girl that had epilepsy. It was really remarkable because during the course of the operation – I think it was a 3 or 4 hour operation – they inserted an electrode, first they had to target a very precise point in the brain and they had to insert an electrode there and then effectively attached a battery. A very small battery inside the upper left shoulder and once that got switched on, the epileptic seizures ceased entirely. As long as they continued to replace the battery this girl would have a completely normal life. I was just blown away by what happens with these advances and the clinical outcomes. That this person’s life was changed completely.

And it was done here in the Red Cross Children’s Hospital?

Yes, Graham is a paediatric neurosurgeon to start with and so in witnessing that, in meeting some of his colleagues, I realised that these people are motivated by something completely different to my experience in my career, where it was all about finance and listed companies. I don’t regret it in the least but I saw people who were driven by completely different things and I had enormous respect for that, but at the same time I could see that the energy and the momentum was something that I could relate to in other spheres – where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts – and people are prepared to make sacrifices on all levels, including the people from Groote Schuur hospital itself. The Vice Chancellor of UCT at that stage was Dr. Max Price and a venture like this is not going to succeed unless there’s huge commitment from those. As it turned out – not surprisingly – there was slight overrun on budget and time took a little bit longer and in those periods its very easy for people to back off and throw their rattles out the cot. I could see that all the parties involved were prepared to step up to the plate. My wife and myself were really just players in that we assisted in a small way to give the idea legs. It’s really based on our assessment of the nature of the people and what was motivating them. It’s day 1 now because the building is opened, but it’s beyond our wildest expectations in terms of how that’s emerged and I really do think that wonderful things are going to come out of it. We can’t even imagine.

The resilience of the people in the circumstances that they were subjected to is one thing, but also from your perspective – seeing the chaos that was going on and many other people who had been supporting the university withdrawing their donations or there support, (not specifically on the neuroscience project) – did that ever cross your mind?

It was dark times for the university. I had to smile to myself because the the Fees Must Fall campaign, taking down the Rhodes statue, I have to admit – when I was a student -there were different issues at the time, but we did a number of things that with the benefit of hindsight – sitting in my current suit and tie – I think I should have got expelled for and I didn’t. I learned about the tolerance of the university. So when you’re 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, you may be doing things and saying things that you wouldn’t be doing when you are 40 or 60. That happens the world over, its youth. Often we’ve got to tune in and hear what they’re saying. It may not be expressed in the format that we like and indeed in the last few years it’s been expressed in ways that have been quite destructive, but I had full confidence – because of my experience with the university – that it had absorption capacity at the same time and would not give up on fundamentally what it believed in. I’ve never wavered on that because I’ve just seen it in my own experience. We had a campaign at that point in time too. We were ending Rugby matches between Stellenbosch University and UCT. It seemed like a small thing but we had no normal sport in an abnormal society. You can understand that now – with a bit of hindsight – it seems really small. But the way in which we protested and gave effect to that, would have challenged the system and the bureaucracy. We were up against government regulations and that we tested. The university – I don’t really know how to describe it – its ability to absorb some of those shocks and at the same time stick to its core values. I think it’s one of the wonderful things that South Africa has got which maybe some other African countries don’t have. We’re in these very stressful times, we need them and we need them to be strong, I would put UCT and Groote Schuur in that category. It has extremely good management, we were economically constrained – all sorts of other kinds of challenges – so for me that was an easy call. UCT had done so much for me. In a small way if I could do something for UCT, I would be very happy.

And it’s come through that stress testing stronger?

Yes. I believe so. I really do believe so. I’ve just been sitting in on the first seminar of the symposium that the Neuroscience Institute is holding and to look at the young multi-talented, multi-cultural, multi-racial people and what they are working on and what they are doing, I think it’s world class. It’s exemplary and I’m very thrilled to have played a small part in it.

You said you’re hoping that great things come out of this building that we’re sitting in now, how exactly would that happen? What will they be doing here for those who don’t have the advantage that we have when looking around?

The hope is that this would become the epi-centre for neuroscience in Africa and that it can assist other countries – which it is already doing – with exchanges and teaching students from Malawi, Kenya. The goal for this to be achieved – and there are many conditions to be met – the one is that the already excellent level of cooperation and collaboration between Groote Schuur hospital and the University needs to be maintained, nurtured and strengthened. But more importantly on the research side of things, it needs to be doing high level research on regional issues that translate into better outcomes for patients. It needs to address the needs and I believe that there is already world class research taking place. The key linkage is how that gets converted into better outcomes for patients. And that’s where it’s perfectly situated. We are part of the medical school and part of Groote Schuur with patients 200m away. So I think that will happen.

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