Why a Donor Bet Big That Business Savvy Is the Key to Advancing Breakthrough Medicine

Medical research is, of course, one of philanthropy's biggest interests. It's especially common for individual philanthropists to invest in health science after a personal experience like the loss of a loved one. Often, they'll give to alma maters or research institutions in their own communities where they have personal connections.

The above was all true for Robert K. Kraft, the billionaire owner of the New England Patriots, and head of the Robert and Myra Kraft Family Foundation. Kraft lost his wife, Myra, to cancer in 2011. He's also a Harvard alum and a lifelong Boston area resident.

So his recent pledge of $20 million to Harvard University for research into precision medicinean emerging approach to medicine that takes into account individual variability in genes and other factorswas no surprise.

But Kraft didn't send the check to the medical school, as you might reasonably expect. In an interesting strategic tack, Kraft gave the $20 million to Harvard Business School (HBS), where he got an MBA in 1965.

The gift creates the Kraft Endowment for Advancing Precision Medicine at HBS. The business school won't make medical and scientific decisions on their own, however, but will collaborate with the Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT, a pioneer in precision medicine, as well as others in Boston. They'll be looking for ways to accelerate breakthroughs and advance commercialization of precision medicine "by harnessing the energy and ideas of the medical, science and entrepreneurial communities in the city."

Why did Kraft give the money to MBAs in blue suits rather than MDs in white lab coats? The approach is part science, part innovation and part Boston boosterism.

Some of the dots may have connected through Myra Kraft's illness. Throughout her cancer treatment, according to the HBR news release, Robert and his family consulted often with Dr. Eric S. Lander, the founding director of the Broad Institute. Lander is a professor at MIT and Harvard Medical School, and from 1981 to 1990, he was on the HBS faculty, where he taught managerial economics.

Precision medicine is increasingly a hotbed of research and entrepreneurial activity. At the beginning of the year, President Obama announced the Precision Medicine Initiative, calling for $215 million in support. Of that budget, $130 million was allocated to the NIH to build a national research cohort and $70 million to the National Cancer Institute to study cancer genomics. We've written about a few of the grants in this area. 

"At heart, many of the challenges facing the advancement of precision medicine today are business challenges," said HBS Dean Nitin Nohria, in a press release. The HBS, Nohria said, will work with organizations like Broad to develop new models, including organizational structures and other collaborative practices, in an effort to position Boston as an academic and commercial leader in precision medicine.

In fact, HBS professors will run the precision medicine initiative's first two pilot projects.

For its part, Broad Institute says it's a new kind of research institution, founded on the principal of collaboration across disciplines and organizations with global reach. This view of fostering innovation by considering ways to optimize the entire ecosystem of developmentfrom research to commercializationhas become popular in the business and innovation ideasphere.

It's hardly a stretch to think that it makes good sense for people who study organizations and innovation for a livingi.e., businesspeopleto take part in the scientific mission. 


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