It's Personal: Why This Real Estate Mogul Is Funding Disease Research

It’s amazing how childhood experiences can shape a person’s adult life. Especially in the world of philanthropy, it seems, wealthy white-haired donors recall childhood pleasures or traumas when determining where to send their money.

So it is for Conrad Prebys, president of Progress Construction and Management in San Diego. He grew up blue collar in South Bend, Indiana, saw his brother get polio, suffered through a whole year of bedridden illness due to a heart infection, and was told he would never be able to lead an active life. 

Instead, he was the first in his neighborhood, and family, to graduate college, and he went on to make millions in real estate development. Now, his childhood experiences are coloring his philanthropy. Actually, those experiences have been coloring his philanthropy for a long time. He’s given $45 million to fund the Prebys Cardiovascular Institute of Scripps Health in San Diego, no doubt inspired by his own heart issues. Previously a trustee of the Salk Institute (and do you need to be reminded that it was Jonas Salk who developed the first polio vaccine?), Prebys has given $2 million to establish the Conrad T. Prebys Endowed Chair in Vision Research, and, now, $25 million to the Salk Institute, to support the hard foundational science that can lead to major disease breakthroughs.

This is a bit of a departure for Prebys. It's definitely a step closer to the research side of things, but the man seems steeped in the understanding that frankly unglamorous research is required before the big "a-ha" moments are achieved. "The scientists at Salk are diving deep into understanding how our bodies operate at the molecular level and what happens when we get sick," says Prebys. "It is vital work that must be done before we can really conquer disease. We need this foundational science to lay the underpinnings for new therapies and cures.”

As the biggest gift in Salk’s endowment drive, and one that nearly pushed them over their Campaign for Salk fundraising goal, Prebys’ gift means a lot for the Institute, and for the future of disease research. It could lead to some interesting changes in the realm of disease philanthropy if more givers gain a deeper understanding of the importance of research.