Packard's Pet Project Has Become a World Leader in Ocean Research

David Packard will likely always be known first and foremost as half of computing pioneer Hewlett-Packard. But his passion later in life— marine exploration and the use of technology to aid it— has blossomed into a legacy of its own. 

In 1987, Packard established the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and since then the Packard Foundation has sunk an incredible $700 million into its flagship grantee, making it one of the top ocean research centers in the world. As part of its Conservation and Science program, MBARI gets a cozy 80 percent of its entire funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. MBARI funding alone makes Packard the world’s largest private funder of marine research. 

David Packard—who passed away in 1996—wasn’t always so deeply invested in ocean research. The legend has it that he and partner Bill Hewlett launched Silicon Valley when they founded Hewlett-Packard in a one-car garage in Palo Alto. The rest is history, as that company went on to play a huge part in the personal computing revolution, becoming the world’s largest PC manufacturer. But in the 1980s, David Packard’s daughters Nancy and Julie began studying marine biology in grad school, and the old man picked up a new hobby. 

That interest led to the founding of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Moss Landing, Calif., in 1984, and three years later the lesser-known, but more-influential Research Institute 20 miles down the road. The Institute was endowed with just $13 million in 1987, but in recent years Packard has given between $30 million and $40 million annually to MBARI, making it the foundation’s largest grantee. Only ClimateWorks, a joint climate change initiative started in 2008 with other philanthropic titans, receives more annually from Packard. 

MBARI is an example of what can happen when a funder really opens up the throttle in one direction. While Packard is definitely an abnormally large case study, it’s notable that David Packard explicitly wanted to create an institution that never had to worry about money, was able to sustain its evolving research, and could afford to take some risks. 

By all accounts, it succeeded. Having celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2012, MBARI is a leader in marine research, on par with Scripps Institution or Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. It employs more than 200 full-time researchers studying the biologically rich and significant Monterey Bay. In particular, the institute has soared when it comes to using robotics and remote technology to monitor difficult to observe sea life. 

Researchers have pioneered the use of Remotely Operated Vehicles and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles, unmanned craft that take video and samples even in the deepest and darkest realms of the ocean floor. That’s right— MBARI was using undersea drones before drones were cool. 

Grantseekers should keep in mind that while Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute is definitely Packard’s favorite child, it’s part of a massive Conservation and Science program that involves hundreds of other grants for marine, river and other basic science programs. Researchers on the West Coast, in particular, should have Packard on their sonar in a big way. 

Learn more about Packard’s giving here