The Gift, and Science, of Giving

The Gift, and Science, of Giving

Global leaders of business and philanthropy are contributing to a scientific resurgence, the likes of which New York, and the world, has never before seen.

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The year was 1924 and Albert Einstein was desperately in need of funding. And so he did what legions of scientists, emerging and renowned alike, would later do in his footsteps: he turned to philanthropists.

In his case, Einstein wrote a letter to the Rockefeller Foundation. The executive leadership had no guarantees of future breakthroughs from Einstein, but they took a chance on the "unknown scholar"—awarding him $1,000.

"He may be on to something," John D. Rockefeller said when instructing his top lieutenant to double Einstein's initial request of $500.

With that gift, comically small by today's standards, the Rockefeller Foundation not only demonstrated its commitment to Einstein himself, but it solidified its place in the pantheon of powerful philanthropic institutions emerging in New York City at the time—a network fueled by a common desire to foster a better world; a network whose ripple effect would eventually extend well beyond the Big Apple.

This institutional mindset was arguably pioneered by the formation of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, which Andrew Carnegie seeded with $125 million in 1911 and 1912, making it the largest philanthropic trust ever established. Within a decade, the Corporation had begun channeling its resources to the natural and social sciences, part of a great effort to improve "scientific management" in the U.S.

This trend continues today, with foundations and individual philanthropists—whose potential beneficiaries are virtually limitless— placing a premium on furthering science through financial support. According to the most recent national report from the nonprofit Foundation Center, which tracks global philanthropic giving, the health industry was the number one recipient of foundation dollars in 2008, receiving nearly 23% of the pie.

The volume of philanthropic monies awarded today is staggering, and it is only logical that New York, an axis of power, wealth, and creativity— and the birthplace of large-scale philanthropy—remains the epicenter of targeted giving. Based on a list of the top donors in America—who each gave over $1 million—published by The Chronicle of Philanthropy, foundations and individuals in New York State gave close to $1.5 billion in 2012. So far in 2013, the amount from New York-based donors has already exceeded $2.2 billion.

A Lean-Forward Approach

Financier Sanford Weill, who endowed the Weill Cornell Medical College with a $250 million gift in 2007, is often near the top of The Chronicle of Philanthropy's annual list. Continuing to break his own records for philanthropy—his total giving is now approaching $1 billion—Weill and his wife Joan, and the Weill Family Foundation, gave an additional $100 million to Weill Cornell Medical College in the fall of 2013 to boost the school's research endeavors.

With New York having become such a hotbed of health and technology-related innovation, Weill says there is no shortage of scientists who are "easy to give money to."

"What they do is not based on how much money they're going to make for themselves," Weill explained recently in his office overlooking Central Park, "but how they're going to help make the world a better place."

And in that sentiment, Weill is hardly alone. In equally grand offices across Manhattan, moguls of finance, media, real estate, and investment are recognizing the profound importance, and future potential, of the scientific innovation that is emerging from New York. Like Weill, they are leveraging their great professional success and personal contacts to endow local laboratories, medical centers, and nonprofits with financial support that is unparalleled in science-centered philanthropic circles. Many are firm believers, and pioneers, in "transformative philanthropy," a more engaged, lean-forward approach in which donors seek out high-value ROIs while still allowing the scientific innovators to innovate the way they know best.

This new generation of funders, whose names now grace the facades of leading global institutions across New York and beyond, are furthering the health-related causes long championed by proven powerhouses like the Carnegie Corporation and the Rockefeller, Ford, and Alfred P. Sloan Foundations, each established before the Second World War. Together, they have created a robust philanthropic landscape that is quickly propelling New York toward achieving the city's "ultimate goal," as vocalized by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in a 2009 speech: "Reclaiming our title as the world's capital of technological innovation."

"The best kind of philanthropy is when you get somebody to make a contribution and they see results ... and they give again and again and again."

Giving Back to Science

It is only logical that Jan Vilcek would feel indebted to the field of science and to the institution that helped him turn his capacity for it into a wildly lucrative career.

After escaping the crushing grips of Czechoslovakian Communism in the mid-1960s, Vilcek, then a pioneering young researcher, was rewarded with a faculty post at New York University's School of Medicine, where he remains today. In the course of his research, Vilcek contributed to the development of Remicade, a blockbuster therapeutic drug that would treat untold multitudes of patients suffering from Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and dozens of other inflammatory disorders.

"We expected the royalty income would grow," Vilcek recently said, "but we had no idea it would become as successful as it actually has." And so Vilcek and his wife, Marica, formed the Vilcek Foundation as a way to support the sciences and the arts. And beyond their foundation, they decided to channel a portion of their Remicade earnings to NYU.

One gift alone, donated to NYU in 2005, totaled $105 million. The funding has largely promoted basic research, which Vilcek sees as the building blocks of scientific discovery.

"A decade ago it seemed like there was much more going on in the Boston area and in California," he says of scientific research outside of the five boroughs. But New York, he adds, is rapidly catching up, with charitable giving serving as a core driver of the innovation.

"Philanthropy is really essential, especially in the times we witness today, when government spending is down," Vilcek notes. "Without philanthropy, there would be complete stagnation."

Likewise, James (Jim) Simons built his financial career on the back of science and technology and he, too, saw fit to pay it forward. His hedge fund, Renaissance Technologies, rose to the top of its field by using complex mathematical models to evaluate and execute trades.

"All the sciences have a beauty to them—a well-conceived experiment, a dramatic new finding," even intricate financial algorithms, Simons says. "And I think science needs all the help it can get."

About 20 years ago, Simons and his wife Marilyn formed the Simons Foundation, which focuses its energies on funding basic science and mathematics research. Among his proudest achievements is the foundation's Autism Research Initiative, which, since 2007, has awarded grants to more than 150 researchers across the globe. Along with a myriad of other programs, the foundation created a novel initiative called Math+X to generate highly competitive challenge grants fostering collaboration between mathematicians and those in science and engineering.

The Simons Foundation is also devoting substantial resources to studying the overall functionality of the human brain and the origin of life.

Asked about his interest in the latter, Simons shrugs and smiles: "It's interesting! Wouldn't you like to know?"

"We look at the stars and wonder how this whole thing got here," he says.

Indeed, in over a dozen interviews with leaders in business and science philanthropy over the summer of 2013, a common personality trait quickly emerged: visionaries like Simons, and those with names like Appel, Soros, and Allen, appear to possess an unbridled curiosity, which motivates them to channel their money to those capable of answering some of life's greatest questions and solving some of its most dire challenges.

Something Greater Than Me

"When you're in Wall Street everyone else looks good," Robert Appel likes to joke. "The Wall Street people make good money and if they're smart they'll support other things. But in the medical field, if you do good you're saving somebody or you're making them better, and that's a very refreshing approach."

Appel, a private investor and financier at his namesake money management firm, Appel Associates, is a self-described futurist who believes that "technology will make it better for all of us." As Chairman of the Board of Jazz at Lincoln Center, he also sees a direct creative link between the arts and science.

Appel admits that philanthropists might initially support the science and medical fields out of a desire to care for their own families, should the need inevitably arise.

"But what happens is it becomes broader than that," he says, "once you meet these people and you see the work that they're doing." Philanthropists, Appel explains, quickly realize the immensity of change that their financial support can create for those well beyond their bloodline.

To that end, Appel was instrumental in raising the funds to build Weill Cornell Medical College's new Belfer Research Building, which will become a hub, on East 69th Street, for translational research initiatives. He and his wife, Helen, also endowed Weill Cornell Medical College's Appel Institute for Alzheimer's Research, as a means to encourage cross-disciplinary research into the study of Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative conditions.

"The things that are going on are extraordinary," Appel says. "And to be involved where extraordinary things are being done by extraordinary people is a very exciting way to spend your life."

Kickstarting Silicon Alley

Sanford Weill hates the sight of blood.

But in 1982, the financier and former chief executive and chairman of Citigroup found himself on the board of Cornell University with no time to commute to Ithaca for meetings.

"They had this operation in New York that was just a fair kind of a place," Weill said of the University's medical college, "so I figured that might be some fun."

In 1998, Weill and his wife, Joan, endowed the medical school with a $100 million gift intended to "create the greatest medical complex in the world," Weill said at the time.

And in a more recent quest to make New York the greatest technological center in the world, Weill helped orchestrate the newly formed partnership between Cornell University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Their collaboration will form the basis of the revolutionary Cornell Tech campus, set to open on Manhattan's Roosevelt Island in 2017. The institute, born of a $350 million gift from Atlantic Philanthropies and its founding chairman, Charles Feeney, has been heralded as an NYC-Silicon Valley equalizer, with Mayor Bloomberg comparing it to an "Eerie Canal of the 21st Century," according to Weill.

Weill cites a "can-you-top-this?" attitude that he stresses is integral to philanthropic success. At the foundational level, such a strategy often takes the shape of so-called challenge grants—employed with great success by the Simons Foundation—which seek to inspire others to offer a matching gift.

"The best kind of philanthropy is when you get somebody to make a contribution and they see results from what they've done, and they give again and again and again," he says. "That's how institutions get built up."

Such a phenomenon is evident in the increasing number of business icons investing in the health sciences, from Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to retired hedge fund manager Julian Robertson and Carlyle Group co­founder David Rubenstein.

It's all about "teamwork rather than individual superstars," Weill explains. "Together, there's no telling the good we can do."

The 'Ground Floor' of Innovation

If anyone should be given a free pass to use a real estate pun at his leisure, it is Mortimer Zuckerman.

And the real estate and media tycoon does just that when he describes the sheer joy and sense of purpose he derives from giving, which he considers to be "another form of public service." Zuckerman's latest such service to make headlines was a $200 million gift to Columbia to endow the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Brain Behavior Institute, which, upon opening in 2016, will become a nerve center for what Zuckerman believes is "the most exciting frontier in medicine."

The institute sits at a crossroads of pure genius and talent, he says, "and to be involved on the ground floor—pardon the pun—on something like this is, for me, just an opportunity to make a contribution that might have a real consequence."

"It's certainly an opportunity to make a lot of medical science come to fruition a lot earlier," he adds.

But despite Zuckerman's hope for, and expectation of, a big impact, he explains that patience is a key factor in scalability. "The whole idea is to create a platform initially. It's not going to be the be-all, end-all of everything," he says.

An Obligation to Empower

What most people might not know about Carl Icahn is that he could have been a doctor.

His medical school stint may have been short-lived—"I didn't like it," Icahn says, bluntly—but his interest in science never left him. He would go on to become an enormously successful investor and today remains the majority shareholder of Icahn Enterprises, the diversified holding company.

Icahn's strategy throughout his myriad of business and philanthropic endeavors has had one core principle in common: he looks for "secular change" in the industries and opportunities to which he devotes his attention and resources. One of those sectors is genomics, or the study of the human genome.

"The change that's going on is amazing," Icahn says of the field. "I wish I were younger so I could really enjoy watching what happens."

But Icahn is doing all he can while he is still around, having recently endowed a genomics laboratory to Princeton, his alma mater. His financial support extends into other realms, too: the Mount Sinai School of Medicine was recently renamed in his honor based on gifts totaling $200 million, and Icahn has been a staunch supporter of charter schools in New York.

Through it all, he has learned to stay on the sidelines, cautioning that it would be "absurd and presumptuous" for a businessman like himself to tell the science or education experts how to do their jobs.

"Don't think because you made a lot of money that you're so damn smart and you can tell these guys what to do," he says with a laugh. "That's my advice. Don't micromanage them."

He continues: "People who make a lot of money start believing that they're geniuses. But they're not. I can attest to that one."

Similarly, Kenneth Langone, the venture capitalist and financial backer of Home Depot—and chair of NYU Langone Medical Center—knows full well the value of a well-placed investment, and he emphasizes that he does not "believe in managed progress."

He references Jonas Salk and Albert Bruce Sabin—"two Jewish kids that grew up in New York and New Jersey" and pioneered the first polio vaccines—as a powerful example of how young talent can flourish, and change the world, when uninhibited.

Of Salk and Sabin's science descendents, Langone adds, "These kids who could be making lots of money as lawyers or in finance are making major sacrifices by going into science. Their treasure is time; mine is money. So I want to give my money to make their time well spent."

In the same fashion, Daisy Soros, who together with her late husband formed the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans, calls philanthropy her "raison d'être." Paul, a shipping innovator, "defected to the U.S. with $17 in his pocket," Soros says, in explaining their decision to support immigrant graduate students through their fellowship. Soros has been told by past awardees, many of whom have gone on to careers in science and medicine, that the fellowship she started with Paul "has heart."

It was Soros' personal eagerness to learn about the latest medical innovations that led her to agree to participate on the board of overseers at Weill Cornell Medical College 20 years ago. But for Soros, who once considered a career in medicine, simple interest in a cause is not enough: "I do my research and I want to understand where the money goes. I don't want [to] waste money by giving it to organizations that don't spend it on the people who need it. I believe in due diligence."

Of course, Soros' ties to philanthropy run deep: her brother-in-law, George Soros, is legendary for the global vision with which he approaches philanthropy through his Open Societies Foundation and the wide array of grants and fellowships it offers. And no talk of global philanthropic empowerment is complete without mention of the Clinton Foundation, which, from its office in Midtown Manhattan, works to meet the challenges of world interdependence, much of them health-oriented.

On a more local level, Len Blavatnik, the founder and chairman of holding company Access Industries, places a similar emphasis on creating exposure, and financial support, for the challenges being tackled by young innovators in the New York area. Along with the New York Academy of Sciences, for which he serves as a board governor, his Blavatnik Family Foundation supports the Blavatnik Awards for Young Scientists, which provides monetary awards to scientists under the age of 42 who are performing groundbreaking research in science, engineering, and mathematics.

"Their exceptional discoveries represent our future and our hope for a better world," Blavatnik says of the work done by emerging researchers—a belief that complements the mission of other Academy-affiliated programs, like The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science. Generously supported by the Dr. Mortimer D. Sackler Foundation, the institute works to stimulate research in nutrition science, nurturing the next generation of thought leaders in the process.

Dr. Kathe A. Sackler and Mortimer D. A. Sackler, who serve as foundation trustees, recently addressed attendees at an event for The Sackler Institute for Nutrition Science, explaining how they've come to realize that nutrition plays a critical role in everything from individual health to political strife. As such, they are committed to playing their own role in mitigating malnutrition and its effects by supporting researchers working to solve major nutrition-related questions and challenges through evidence-based science.

As Carl Icahn says, "Give where your money does the most good."

"We put money where the talent is and the scientific talent in New York is staggering."

Success Breeds Success

To say that Larry Silverstein enjoys a world-class view from his office would be a gross understatement. The Manhattan-based real estate developer sits in a sprawling, glass-walled space on the 38th floor of 7 World Trade Center, a building he built in 2006 after the original structure collapsed following the 9/11 attacks. Silverstein can practically reach out and touch One World Trade Center, his most iconic, and important, creation to date, which soars past his office in a shimmer of shiny blue.

As one of the world's most influential landlords, it is only fitting that Silverstein has a lofty perch from which to watch over the city of New York, his birthplace, which is currently undergoing what he considers a renaissance of ingenuity. Silverstein can tell you all about Wall Street's forthcoming rebound and the plum opportunities for real estate development, but he's just as bullish about science, which, he says, "is at the basis of everything."

"I believe the city is going to experience enormous growth in the sciences, in research of all kinds, in technology, in creativity, in communications," Silverstein said over iced coffee in his office recently. "The growth here is phenomenal today, and it's going to become even more so tomorrow." Silverstein is a man with a seemingly endless list of philanthropic pursuits, from NYU's Real Estate Institute and Medical Center to the United Jewish Appeal. But he grows most animated when talk turns to Cornell Tech and all it will do for the city that buzzes hundreds of feet below.

"What they're going to create here in New York—wow!" Silverstein remarks. "Powerful, powerful draw, powerful magnet. The sciences, the scientists that will come here to participate in it—phenomenal. Absolutely phenomenal."

Paul L. Joskow, who helms the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation—an organization that has been supporting science for the better part of a century—couldn't agree more. Sloan gives $75 million annually in support of science, but Joskow says that because New York is home to so many world-class researchers, Sloan spends one out of every five dollars here.

"We put money where the talent is," says Joskow, "and the scientific talent in New York is staggering." Recently, Sloan has turned its attentions to the promise and perils of the data avalanche unleashed by information technology and the Internet, partnering with the Moore Foundation in a $7.5 million initiative to turn New York University's Center for Data Science into a national leader in big data management.

But, perhaps surprisingly, Joskow says it's New York's influential role as a cultural center that may hold the most promise for research. "We won't have a society that adequately funds research until we have a society that fully appreciates researchers." Sloan acts on this insight by partnering with NYC artistic institutions—from the Metropolitan Opera to the Tribeca Film Festival—to raise the visibility of science and educate the public about the value of research.

"Science deserves a seat at the cultural table," says Joskow. "New York can give it one."

Of course a large part of the reason that science is becoming intertwined with New York culture like never before, is the city's fortunate status as home to many of the world's most active science-promoting philanthropists and foundations. Close to a century after Albert Einstein received that first auspicious check from the Rockefeller Foundation, it's fitting that science-related philanthropy is reaching a groundswell moment in and around New York, hand-in-hand with groundbreaking research.


Noah Rosenberg is a journalist and the founder of Narratively.