How One Biotech Fortune Funds the Environment, and a New Competition

The family foundation of the late George Rathmann, one of the pioneers of the biotech industry, has been making wide-ranging grants since 1991. Two of its interests are conservation and carbon storage. Now, the funder has launched a competition, with the environment as the next focus.

The Rathmann Challenge, which made its first award in November 2015, is a uniquely varied competition, rotating between a whopping nine topics that include education, the environment, international aid, technology and science. The prize is $100,000, plus an opportunity to apply for a grant of $200,000. The 2017 prize will go to environmental solutions, a longtime priority for the funder. 

The challenge is a relatively new endeavor for the Rathmann Family Foundation, and the result of younger members from the third generation of the family joining the board, according to tax documents. But it also seeks to carry out the intentions of the first generation, focusing on causes George and wife Joy Rathmann supported, as well as an emphasis on entrepreneurial spirit and innovation. 

Innovation was something George Rathmann knew a lot of about, given his history as CEO of Amgen, the world’s largest independent biotechnology firm. When he took the reins of the company in 1980, genetic engineering was was barely a thing, but Rathmann built up the company’s funding and led Amgen to develop some massively successful drugs.  

Science and education are two of the main focuses of the foundation’s giving, but so is the environment. For example, the foundation has given past grants  to conservation groups in Maryland working on the Chesapeake Bay, but also to groups protecting water and land in Massachusetts and the Bay Area. 

One particularly interesting project that has received substantial funding from the Rathmann Family Foundation is an effort to advance carbon storage in soils on farms and ranches in California. The work hinges on a growing concept called carbon farming, by which adding compost to regenerate grazing land increases the amount of atmospheric carbon the soils can soak up. 

Heiress Peggy Rathman and husband John Wick began experimenting with carbon farming on their ranch in California, and the family foundation has supported their nonprofit, the Marin Carbon Project and the Carbon Cycle Institute to advance the efforts. Major climate and political donor Tom Steyer and his wife Kathryn Taylor have a similar interest they've been pursuing at their own cattle ranch. 

Related: Tomkat Serves Steak With a Side of Sustainability

That may or may not shed light on what to expect in the upcoming Rathmann Challenge. The foundation heavily emphasizes innovative solutions to problems, and the environment is the next topic on the agenda for the 2017 prize. But the details of the 2017 Challenge have yet to be decided. 

The competition rewards past work based on a peer review process, the prize being $100,000, but is also based on the potential to take that work to a higher level. So winners are then invited to submit a proposal for an “Even Bigger Idea” grant of twice the prize money.

Related: The Perils of All These Prizes

The challenge is unique in a couple of ways. For one, the long list of topics and biennial schedule suggest several years will go by between competitions in each individual topic, which is kind of puzzling. But the two-stage RFP style, offering a pretty big chunk of money, and then a chance for more, is intriguing. 

The first round focused on education, seeking creative solutions to a problem that interferes with Pre-K-12 learning. The inaugural winner was Vision to Learn, a nonprofit that sends mobile clinics to schools to identify untreated vision problems. 

Details on the 2017 Rathmann Challenge will be available in November on its website, which will also post future funding opportunities from the foundation.