San Diego Blood Bank holds Chargers Drive, looks to future with new ventures

As the San Diego Blood Bank gears up to stage the 36th edition of its annual blood drive in partnership with the San Diego Chargers, the event is evolving in line with new initiatives under way at the nonprofit, which supplies blood to dozens of Southern California hospitals.

David Wellis, 51, a Carmel Valley resident and former biotech executive, was hired last year to run the blood bank. He calls the new initiatives “Blood Bank 2.0,” an effort to expand the nonprofit’s reach and bring in new revenue that can be used to carry out its mission.

Wellis is a trained cell biologist with a doctorate from Emory University. He spent some 20 years in the private sector before taking over at the San Diego Blood Bank in 2013. Most recently, he served as president of BioAtla LLC, an antibody drug development company with operations in San Diego and Beijing.

In an interview, Wellis said the blood bank is not so different from a private company, because it manufactures biological products and is regulated much like a pharmaceutical company.

“It’s a business, and it needs to be run just like any other business, whether it’s for profit or nonprofit,” Wellis said.

The blood bank’s core business, said Wellis, is providing blood under contract to some 90 hospitals in San Diego, Los Angeles, Imperial and Orange counties.

“That will never change; we will continue to do that,” he said.

But Wellis is pursuing other, related services that have the potential to bring in new revenue, and the money will be used for such purposes as equipment, employees and new initiatives.

“It gives us the opportunity to have more impact on the community’s health,” he said.

Among those new endeavors, he said, are expanding the blood bank’s role in medical research, and its health, wellness and education services.

Those new areas of focus will be evident at Chargers Drive 2014, which will be held from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 25, at the Town and Country Resort in Mission Valley.

Donors will be able to meet Chargers players, and visit an expanded Wellness Zone with interactive exhibits and activities, as well as provide additional blood samples to be used for research, said Wellis.

The blood bank wants to educate donors that contributing blood for research is just as important as donating for transfusions, Wellis said. While a unit of blood can be divided into three components and potentially save three lives, a blood sample used by researchers who discover a new drug can potentially help millions, he said.

On the health and wellness side, he said, the blood bank’s donor centers and bloodmobiles could also be used to deliver basic services, such as flu shots, or conduct health screenings, he said.

The blood bank’s traditional services of providing blood for transfusions to area hospitals continue to have an impact in the community.

Lisette, a Carmel Valley resident who asked that her last name not be used to protect her family’s privacy, recently saw those benefits firsthand. While she was pregnant with her son, Elias, the baby needed three blood transfusions to protect him from a condition that could have led to fetal anemia. Two of the transfusions were provided before the baby was born, allowing him to remain in the womb until he was closer to full term, and the third was performed after his birth.

Elias has since recovered fully.

“He’s perfect, as any other 18-month-old. He’s healthy and happy,” said Lisette. “You’d really never know he had those issues, because it was so well-managed and we were able to get the blood we needed when we needed it.”

Donating blood, whether at the Chargers Drive, a donor center or bloodmobile, is particularly important at this time of year. Supplies are down because regular donors are on vacation or busy with the holidays. At the same time, demand is up because hospitals are busier, said Wellis. “That makes it so important for people to come and donate now.”

Wellis and his wife, Vinit, a pediatric anesthesiologist, have two children: a son who attends the University of San Diego, and a daughter who attends Francis Parker School, where Wellis sits on the board of trustees.