Got Exciting Research Cooking on Campus? Tell Rich Alums About It

It's not every day that a donor gives a school nearly $100 million. But that's what Louis Simpson and his wife Kimberly Querrey recently did, giving $92 million to support a new 12-story research hub at Northwestern, which will be named after the couple. The planned center will provide space for research into neurodegenerative disorders, as well as cancer, heart disease and genetics.

The center appears to be an amalgamation of a lot of different interests in health and science, but what's interesting about Simpson and Querrey is that there doesn't appear to be a personal story here, at least from the perspective of, say, a health challenge in the Simpson family. Simpson did attend Northwestern, however, and has been on the Northwestern University board since 2006. In addition, his son Ted is a graduate of Northwestern's Kellogg School of Management. 

Still, this information doesn't fully explain what would compel the couple to make such a huge investment in medical and science research. What's really at work here? And what can we learn about this kind of philanthropy in a larger sense?

Well, for starters, Simpson and Querrey, who also helm the Querrey Simpson Charitable Foundation, appear to be making a number of big higher education gifts of late. Princeton University, where Simpson earned a masters in economics, and where Ted also graduated, received $10 million this year to establish a macroeconomics center. Simpson also taught at Princeton for two years.

Last year, another Simpson alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan University, received $8 million from the couple toward a new fitness center. Oh, and then there's the $25 million that the couple has given to Northwestern in the last couple of years to support the Louis A. Simpson and Kimberly K. Querrey Center for Regenerative Nanomedicine, housed within Northwestern's Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine. 

That's right—this is another case of prior giving to a school influencing future giving. We say this all the time at IP, but we say it often because it's such a common circumstance in higher education giving. It's particularly relevant in this case, in which donors became increasingly excited about work they were funding and wanted to pour even more resources into the same area.  

The couple was introduced to Samuel I. Stupp, a star Northwestern professor and researcher, by Northwestern President Morton Schapiro. Stupp's work focuses on regrowing cells to help people suffering from cancer, heart disease and neurodegenerative disorders. Simpson and Querrey were impressed and invested $10 million in 2012. The couple then followed up that gift in 2014, providing an additional $15 million to the center and institute, which was renamed in their honor. Stupp currently serves as director of the Simpson Querrey Institute for BioNanotechnology in Medicine and the Louis A. Simpson and Kimberly K. Querrey Center for Regenerative Nanomedicine.

So there you have it: a shrewd university president introducing a moneyed alumnus to a star professor doing groundbreaking research. But it's important to hammer home the fact that Stupp's role here didn't just motivate that first $10 million gift, but a series of escalating gifts, the latest of which was a whopping $92 million. In total, the couple has given $117.8 million toward the university's current $3.75 billion capital campaign.

The other familiar lesson here is about how medical research tends to draw in the big bucks. This gift to Northwestern is the just latest example of donors putting their money behind campus-based research that potentially leads to major breakthroughs in medicine. To donors with an eye on their legacy, investing in that potential can be far more exciting than, say, underwriting scholarships or a new business school. So one moral of this story: If potentially groundbreaking medical research is underway on campus, make sure to spread the word among the school's wealthy backers. One of them might be keen on taking that research to the next level. 

Related - Campus Cash: Medical Research

Though not a household name, Louis Simpson has run in major financial circles for decades and is currently chairman of the Florida-based investment advisory firm SQ Advisors. He's also the former president and CEO of capital operations at Geico. So while Simpson's net worth is unclear, he certainly has quite a bit of money.

These days, Geico is owned by Warren Buffett's conglomerate, Berkshire Hathaway. Buffett met Simpson back in 1996, when Buffett was completing his purchase of Geico. The two became friends, and for at least a decade, Simpson picked stocks on behalf of Berkshire Hathaway. For a while, Simpson was considered Buffett's successor at the company. While people know about Buffett's right hand man, Charlie Munger, Simpson is another mastermind.

Interestingly enough, Buffett's sister and Northwestern alum Roberta, gave $100 million to Northwestern earlier this year.