Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Texan turns to Bethesda to help fund NIH research

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Ronnie Rodes and his family will make the familiar trek from their Houston-area home to the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda next week.

Rodes and his 7-year-old son Garrett who has muscular dystrophy and a genetic immune disorder, Job’s Disease, will be patients at NIH.

But the trip has another purpose, too. Rodes will launch on July 1 a social networking Web site called NeighborhoodFriends.com that, in a roundabout way, will help fund NIH research.

The idea was born in 2002, after the Rodes family moved into a new Texas neighborhood, having to start over on finding friends, jogging partners and other first-time parents. He sensed an unfilled niche in major social networking — a Web site where parents could see Amber Alerts for their area, sign up for local book clubs or search for neighbors with common interests.

Rodes envisioned linking ‘‘parents across the country with children who have muscular dystrophy like my son has.”

Rodes, an insurance salesman since 1993, went door to door with a survey. He asked neighbors whether they would join a hyperlocalized free social networking Web site. Of the 130 neighbors who responded, 128 said they would join, ‘‘and that was the inspiration I needed,” he said.

The site would be a virtual companion to block parties or National Night Out events where neighbors mingle with one another.

‘‘It’s definitely for the 30-and-up crowd who don’t want to go on there and just chat,” Rodes said.

But one of the main thrusts of the project is advertising revenue, which is where Bethesda comes into play. Rodes hopes Montgomery County residents will join, attracting advertisers to the Web site and generating profits that Rodes will then return to the National Institutes of Health.

‘‘As we develop this and bring in revenue, we are going to have an exit strategy to sell this completed project to somebody or some company that wants to take over,” Rodes said. Advertising revenue and the possible sale of the site will be turned into funding for NIH.

His idea ‘‘sounds very creative, and for us has no direct precedents probably,” said Charles Pucie of the Foundation for the NIH.

The only prior instance of a Web site helping to fund NIH research was when a Diet Coca Cola site’s proceeds went toward heart disease research, Pucie said.

Donations to NIH come from individuals, corporations, other nonprofit organizations and research organizations that participate in public-private research projects.

‘‘Family members do get involved. It’s not unusual,” he said.

The Foundation for NIH received $21.6 million in contributions in 2007 — about one-quarter of its total revenue and support for the year. Nearly all of the foundation’s money went into funding research partnerships that advanced the mission of NIH.

Rodes faces a challenge in competing with youth-populated sites such as Facebook.com and MySpace.com.

NeighborhoodFriends.com will need half a million unique visitors to succeed, Rodes said. His goal for the first month, July, is to sign up 100,000 new users.

Rodes said Bethesda residents who are active in neighborhood and civic associations are welcome. He’s ‘‘not telling them to get out of their association.”

Instead, the NeighborhoodFriends.com site will be a quick way of searching for the 10 closest people who, say, have a child with a disability.

A pre-launch version of the Web site has standard social networking fare: photo albums, blogs, linked profiles called ‘‘friends” or ‘‘contacts,” and groups with event announcements. The site’s unique feature is a map displaying a user’s friends, neighbors and activity groups based on geographical location. According to the pre-launch version of the site, local weather alerts or similar bulletins could show up when a person signs in to the site.

A search could find a church group, an Avon representative, even a jogging companion who is male, 35 to 45 years old with children.

‘‘All of a sudden you don’t feel like you’re on an island anymore,” Rodes said.