This Home Depot Co-Founder is Funding Out-there Brain Science

It’s pretty local, but heavens, it’s large. The Marcus Foundation, the Atlanta-based behemoth founded by Bernard “Bernie” Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot and Giving Pledge signatory, has deep pockets and isn’t afraid to use them. The foundation gave out over $40 million in 2012, mostly to health care and mental health initiatives, with a few gifts to Jewish agencies and synagogues sprinkled in. It put up the money to found Autism Speaks in 2005. Now, it's stepping up to fund the first two years of groundbreaking trials essaying whether umbilical cord blood can be used to treat autism, cerebral palsy, and stroke, at Duke Medical.

It’s $15 million in one fell swoop, and even for big rollers like the Marcus Foundation, that’s a lot of money. But just look at what amazing ground could be gained from these clinical trials. Simply put, the question is whether umbilical cord blood can be used to repair dysfunctional or damaged areas of the brain.

Based on prior research, the study’s co-heads Geraldine Dawson and Joanne Kurtzberg feel their hypothesis is likely to work out. “The whole program has enormous potential,” said Kurtzberg. “Autism, stroke and cerebral palsy are all neurologic conditions that impair function and quality of life for these children and adults. If we can make that better, it will have a huge personal and societal impact.”

The outside-the-box nature of this research is exactly what appeals to the Marcus Foundation. They’re one of those delightfully daring foundations that takes on the kinds of sea monsters the risk-averse NIH avoids. In this way, they remind us a little of Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance. Or is it the Adelson Medical Research Foundation? Maybe both.

Regardless, we love these spirited foundations who aren’t afraid of a challenge. Or delayed gratification. And lest you find yourself discouraged by the Marcus Foundation’s southern focus, know that recently they’ve been moving their money further afield, albeit mostly to Jewish organizations in the northeast. A 2010 gift of $414,729 to the Albert Einstein Medical Center in Philly for the prevention of Jewish genetic diseases caught our eye, but other than that they seem to keep their health giving local while searching out far-flung groups for their religious support dollars.