Why This Tech Entrepreneur Is Reaching for the Stars at University of Arizona

We've been writing recently about how private philanthropy has historically helped support telescope projects. Reaching for the stars isn't cheap and with budget cuts slicing through capital projects aimed at building and maintaining observatories, private funding is even more important nowadays. This is why tech entrepreneur Richard F. Caris' recent $20 million gift to University of Arizona caught our attention.

University of Arizona is one of several institutions involved in the Giant Magellan Telescope project in the Chilean desert. Arizona committed to raise $60 million towards the project and thanks to Caris, the school is well on its way to meeting that commitment.

Caris is the founder and chairman of Interface Inc, a high-tech company that manufactures equipment used in aerospace, medical, and other industries. They've worked with the likes of Boeing, Ford, Airbus and GM. While Caris doesn't appear to be a University of Arizona alum, the ties here are just as strong.

For one, Caris' company, Interface Inc., founded in 1968, is based in Scottsdale, Arizona, not too far away from University of Arizona's Tuscon campus. Caris built his career here, registering several patents as a young intentor and later enjoying decades-long success with Interface. As we often say here at IP, location sometimes trumps alumni loyalty. 

More than that, Interface itself manufactures what are called "custom mirror-cell support systems," which are found in — you guessed it — telescopes. Caris has a long relationship with University of Arizona in this area, having donated more than $2 million towards past astronomy projects. Caris has also been involved with the Arizona Astronomy Board for more than ten years and has given to the Mt. Lemmon SkyCenter and the University of Arizona Sky School. He also gave funds to help create mirrors for the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, a similar telescope project in Chile with which University of Arizona was involved.

Often with these gifts we write about how a donor's commitment to arts or STEM at a university grows over time. As a donor sees his or her money being used well be an institution, he or she ups commitment. The same holds true here, only this time we're dealing with something a bit more niche — expensive telescope projects. In this case, with Caris and his company, the gift almost feels custom made, which should be the goal.

This gift is also instructive when thinking not just about why a donor might give to a school, but why a school is a viable site for funding in a particular area in the first place. University of Arizona's Stewart Observatory Mirror Lab was founded more than 25 years ago by Robert Angel, an acclaimed astronomer and Arizona professor. Since its founding, the school has made the optics for several telescopes, including two of the largest mirrors ever. In other words, there's a history here too. 

This might be a good time to mention that University of Arizona will be crafting the mirrors for the Giant Magellan Telescope as well. A la your favorite science flick, the project will take place under the stands of the University of Arizona football stadium, where the Mirror Lab is located. The mirrors being this time are again considered some of the largest ever made.

An important word in all of this is "prestige" and with the diverse roster of players involved with the Giant Magellan — Harvard, University of Chicago, the Smithsonian, Australian National University — it's easy to see how University of Arizona would also want to hop on board. Think of it like the space race.

It's also easy to see how these forces would motivate a guy like Caris to bankroll another telescope project. His $20 million contribution marks the largest gift ever given to the observatory in its more than 90-year history. In honor of the donation, the mirror lab will be renamed the Richard F. Caris Mirror Lab.