How Horses Spurred a $42.5 Million Gift to Colorado State by a Media Mogul

Billionaire John Malone and his wife Leslie recently gave $42.5 million to Colorado State University. The gift will help break ground on the new Institute for Biologic Translational Therapies on campus, a center which will focus on harnessing stem cell research to solve medical problems in animals and humans. Indeed, animals, specifically horses, are where this story begins.

Malone and Leslie raise dressage horses, priming horses and their riders for elite competition. Leslie in particular is passionate about this sport, and started Harmony Sporthorses on land the couple owns in Kiowa, Colorado. The Malones own at least 40 horses and Harmony has grown into an international operation, with horses that have competed all around the world, including in the Olympics.

(Yes, rich people are different.)

But of all of the horses the Malones own, let's focus on a horse named Blixt, who returned to training after undergoing successful arthroscopic surgery at Colorado State Orthopaedic Research Center. That's right, the folks at Colorado State nursed a Malone horse back to health, and are now being rewarded to the tune of $42.5 million. Wow. 

While the ingredients here might be a little different, a common point we emphasize all the time remains: Gratitude is a big driver in higher education philanthropy (and also healthcare giving, by the way). This certainly appears to be the case here, albeit with a unique twist. 

This isn't the first time philanthropy has been spurred by a prized animal. I've written before about David Duffield, a tech entrepreneur who's laser-focused on protecting dogs and cats. Why? A promise he made to his miniature schnauzer, Maddie, who passed away before Duffield made it big. Maddie's Fund gives away around $10 million annually, almost all of it going to animal causes. 

Related - A Single Four-Legged Focus: The Tech Philanthropist Giving Millions for Animals

Both of these cases provide a reminder that big-time philanthropy can be motivated by any cause and personal experience. In the case of horses and dogs, perhaps funders are motivated by the idea that not too many people are operating in this space, and feel compelled to give large sums to make up for it.

It's worth noting that the Malones are not alumni of Colorado State. Malone got degrees from Yale, Johns Hopkins and NYU before entering the media world. He now serves as chairman of Liberty Media Corp based in the Denver area. While Malone was born on the east coast, the couple has been in Colorado for more than three decades, building his business and family.

Colorado has also been the site of past philanthropy. The Malone Family Foundation gives away tens of millions annually, mainly in secondary education. In 2013, the Malones gave $6 million to Colorado State to establish the Leslie A. Malone Presidential Chair in Equine Sports Medicine. Another area of interest is land conservation and preservation, as the couple owns around 500,000 acres alone in Colorado, in addition to land across several other western states and in the northeast. Malone owns at least 2.2 million acres and was considered the largest private individual landholder in the country in 2014 according to the the Land Report.

Malone has also given big to his alma maters, including $24 million to establish an engineering center in his father's name at Yale, before later giving $50 million to the school. And he's given millions to Johns Hopkins.

We often talk about higher education philanthropy leading to more giving down the line. Normally, we're talking about the same school. But this might also apply across the board. Malone appears to have gotten his feet wet by first focusing on his alma maters, where money was presumably used satisfactorily. Then, once he got comfortable, he's now focusing on schools in his second home of Colorado.

The eventual hope for the Institute for Biologic Translational Therapies will not only be to discover regenerative solutions for medical problems in animals, but also in humans.