Well, we didn't see that coming. Surely you didn't either. Although the Ellison Medical Foundation has yet to make a formal announcement, on November 4 , 2013, Executive Director Kevin Lee confirmed — via private correspondence with IP editors — that the foundation is pulling up stakes and getting out of medical philanthropy. "The foundation's board of directors (that is, Larry Ellison) recently made the decision to move in a different direction, and to use the foundation as a vehicle for other (non-biomedical research-related) philanthropy," says Lee. "I wish I had other news for you."
Our interest was piqued when we read this dark horse article published by the University of Georgia — a complete bolt from the blue claiming that, after 15 years of supporting research into aging-related conditions, Ellison's well was drying up. It was pursuing another direction. "The Foundation will no longer be accepting new applications for New and Senior Scholar awards in Aging, Neuroscience, or other biomedical research topics," the article notes. "All currently funded awards will continue to be honored under all the terms and conditions established..."
Yowza, we said, when we received confirmation. Why so sudden, and why still completely unannounced on Ellison's website? Often, philanthropies will give you months, if not years, of warning — such as the slow decline of a formerly active grantmaking area, a formal notice posted well before the start of a new grant cycle — but with Ellison, there was nothing. Not even a "don't let the door hit you on the way out." And yet, if you poke around a bit, you can find inklings of the foundation's real fly-by-the-seat-of-its-pants mentality, inklings of how its embrace-the-risk mentality may have detracted from its ability to sustain itself.
For starters, despite the fact that he signed the Giving Pledge, Larry Ellison was always seen as a loose cannon by the philanthropic community. He levied his ownership of a Hawaiian island as collateral for personal debt, for goodness' sake. He seemed, well, a little eccentric, too, declaring a war on death as he did. Also, Ellison was notorious for making big awards to support risky, out-there science. Although the foundation promised to be patient, supporting scientists on the long road to big breakthroughs — maybe the board just got tired of waiting. Who could blame them? Philanthropy isn't for everyone. It can often take decades for constant support to pay off.
In the end, we may never know the real reasons behind Ellison's sudden stop, but we can surely express our wonderment and disappointment that such a promising foundation has given up the fight.