A Small Science Funder to Watch, Backing Some Hot Fields of Research

With government pulling back support for basic science research, private philanthropy is becoming an ever more important lifeline for scientistsand especially those pursuing risky research. Yet despite the large dividends that basic science research can yield, this area doesn't tend to attract a lot of funders. It's complex and intimidating, and the payoffs can be distant or uncertainall turnoffs to philanthropists who want to feel confident their giving is having an impact. 

All of which is why we keep an eye out for newcomers who are fortifying this critical corner of philanthropy. One of them is the Shurl & Kay Curci Foundation, which has a hand in some fascinating research lately, ranging from brain-computer interfaces to edible electronic medical devices.

Curci first crossed our radar as a member of the Science Philanthropy Alliance, a relatively new funder association boasting partners such as Moore, Kavli, HHMI, Sloan and the Simons Foundation. So the Curci Foundation is in good company there, but what’s this fairly new funder up to? 

The Shurl & Kay Curci Foundation officially started in 2007 in the Los Angeles area, founded by successful real estate developer Shurl Curci and wife Kay Curci. Shurl Curci passed away in 2013, and now Kay is the donor and a trustee on a board of eight people, along with some past business associates, and computer scientist James G. Mitchell.

Related: Help Wanted: A Funders Alliance Rallies Newcomers to Science Philanthropy

The funder has been steadily ramping up its giving since it started, going from $160,000 in grants in the 2009 fiscal year to almost $2 million in the 2016 fiscal year, the latest on record (through February). 

Grants mostly back individual research projects, usually at around $200,000, although there is a smattering of fellowships and scholarships in the mix. California schools are frequent grantees, with University of California San Francisco, Stanford, and Caltech landing repeat grants. But other grantees include Carnegie Mellon and Georgia Tech. 

The foundation favors brain science, regenerative medicine, cell biology, cancer, and nanotechnology, and has funded some pretty fascinating stuff in those areas. There’s a definite biomedical focus, with novel diagnostics and treatments taking the spotlight, but not exclusively. 

Some examples of work Curci has backed include: 

  • A study at UCSF involving the famed CRISPR technique to shed new light on telomeres, once referred to as “junk DNA,” and the role these genes play in human cancer cells.
  • A Carnegie Mellon researcher who has developed batteries made with melanin pigment, which could power edible electronic devices for use in diagnosing and treating diseases.
  • A Stanford study that identified a possible cause of Parkinson’s disease at the molecular level. 
  • More UCSF research, this time discovering the perceptive mechanism by which the brain predicts and stitches together speech when certain sounds are obscured by noise. 
  • Another Carnegie Mellon line of research that is teaching mice to use brain-computer interfaces, which could have implications for how the brain processes learning, motor skills, and behavior. 

While individual grants are substantial, Curci is still giving at a lower scale overall than some of its well-known counterparts, with only a handful of research schools benefitting at this point. But the funder’s steady rise, its involvement in the Science Philanthropy Alliance, and the fact that it’s funding research alongside some real heavyweights make it a foundation to watch.