LifeShare Blood Centers was founded in 1942 when the concept of blood banking was just a couple of years old. It is one of the country’s oldest blood centers, and its tradition of forward and innovative thinking lives on in the organization’s plans to establish Louisiana’s first umbilical cord blood bank.
Cord blood is the blood that remains in the umbilical cord and placenta after an infant is born. This blood, which often gets thrown away, contains stem cells that can be used to treat patients with life-threatening diseases from leukemia and lymphoma to sickle cell anemia.
But running a cord blood bank is very different than running a standard blood-banking operation. It is very expensive for starters — it costs a public bank about $1,500 to collect, test, freeze and store a single unit of cord blood. Plus, success in cord blood banking requires building a large inventory featuring a great diversity of cells with different genetic types from different populations. In other words, there is more to it than the standard ABO blood typing used in blood banks.
None of these challenges seems to discourage the staff at LifeShare, who are using their experience in the Social Innovators Institute to explore what it will take to make their cord blood bank a success, and how best to plan for the venture’s growth.
A Learning Organization
“I have never been with an organization that prides itself as much on learning and always improving,” said Libby Murphy, LifeShare’s Director of Development and Public Relations.
Learning has indeed become a focal point of LifeShare’s work in the Institute. Murphy said the Institute has forced her and her colleagues – including Executive Director Terri Turner-Marse, Executive Vice President Linda Allsup and Resource Development Coordinator Daphne Terral – to wrestle with an array of important questions as they develop a business plan for the cord blood bank.
Among the biggest questions: how to turn the venture into a self-sustaining operation. The state of Louisiana approved appropriations of $1 million in 2008 and $1.5 million in 2009 to fund the start-up of the blood bank, but there is no guarantee that the state will continue funding at these levels in the years ahead. Therefore, one focus of the LifeShare business plan is finding other funders who can continue to subsidize the bank’s operations until it can survive on its own as a fee-for-service business.
In addition, the LifeShare team is weighing how to expand operations over the long haul. “We are exploring a couple of different models for growth,” said Murphy. One model would be to work out in concentric circles from LifeShare’s home base in Baton Rouge, eventually establishing cord blood banking centers in all regions of the state. Another, more cost-effective model would be to capitalize on the remarkable diversity of the Louisiana population and focus on areas of the state where LifeShare would have access to some of the rarer tissue types that are lacking in the national cord blood inventory.
Yet another question facing the LifeShare staff is how to implement cord blood banking in different locations. “What works at Woman’s Hospital in Baton Rouge (which delivers 14 percent of babies in the state) might not work in a small community hospital in Monroe,” Murphy said.
Murphy said that exploring these types of questions through the institute has been an eye-opening experience. “Cord blood banking is relatively new. Everyone is trying to figure out how to do it right,” she said.
If the institute has taught her anything, Murphy said, it’s the importance of “doing your homework.” Organizations weighing start-up social ventures, she explained, should “dig in” and make sure they have information and data to back up any assumptions they’re making about the need for their services and opportunities for growth.