Foundation Honors Visionary Leaders at Annual Conference

July 03, 2014

Attracting more than 500 attendees from around the world, the Foundation’s VISIONS 2014 conference in Denver provided the ideal backdrop for recognizing three visionaries who have made extraordinary contributions to the fight against vision-robbing retinal degenerative diseases. Dr. David Birch was given the Foundation’s Board of Directors Award, and its Builder of Sight Award was presented to board members Bruce Sawyer and David Walsh.

“Our honorees bring a tremendous amount of ingenuity and initiative to their roles in advancing our mission,” says William T. Schmidt, chief executive officer at the Foundation. “Their can-do spirit has boosted the acceleration of our progress in the drive to eradicate blindness.”   

David Birch, Ph.D., the chief executive and scientific officer at the Retina Foundation of the Southwest in Dallas, was honored with FFB’s Board of Directors Award for developing a measure known as EZ Area to quickly and accurately determine if retinitis pigmentosa (RP) therapies are saving or restoring vision in human studies. Typical tests for evaluating visual function — including those measuring visual acuity and peripheral vision — can yield highly variable results, often making them impractical as endpoints for clinical trials. However, EZ Area, which correlates retinal structure with vision changes, is a much more sensitive and reliable measure, and may greatly increase the chances that forthcoming RP-treatment clinical trials will succeed.

Builder of Sight Awards were presented to Bruce Sawyer and David Walsh, both of whom have made exceptional commitments to the Foundation’s mission and provided strong leadership as long-standing directors on the Foundation’s board.    

Mr. Sawyer joined the Foundation in 1998. He became a national trustee in 2000 and a board director in 2004, serving as the board’s assistant treasurer from 2004 to 2008. He and his wife, Bonnie, have been active and generous supporters of several successful Foundation VisionWalks, dinners, wine tastings and golf tournaments throughout the country.

Most notably, he founded and chaired the Baltimore Blind Wine Tasting and served as chair for the inaugural Baltimore Visionary Awards Dinner in 2007. Mr. Sawyer is founder and director of the Frederick N. Griffith Foundation for the Advancement of Transplantation and Tissue Banks International and a retired executive vice president of Barton-Cotton.

Mr. Walsh became involved with the Foundation in 1998 and has served on the board of directors since 2005. In addition to his generous support of the fight against blindness, he has extended his philanthropy to several other organizations, including the University of Wisconsin, where he is a member of the Board of Regents. Mr. Walsh also established a retinal-disease stem cell consortium, which provided significant funding for some of the field’s top stem-cell innovators, including David Gamm, M.D., Ph.D., Michael Young, Ph.D., and Ray Lund, Ph.D.

Most excitingly, the consortium supported research that has, or will soon be, moving into human studies for emerging sight-saving therapies. Mr. Walsh is a retired partner of the law firm Foley & Lardner LLP and a former part owner of the Milwaukee Brewers. He also served as a U.S. Navy officer during the Vietnam War.

The Foundation’s next annual conference, VISIONS 2015, will take place June 25-28, 2015, in Baltimore.