Fast Forward: What a Big Gift for Life Sciences Research Means for This University

photo:  Jorge Salcedo/shutterstock

photo:  Jorge Salcedo/shutterstock

When a research area like life sciences garners support from Art Levinson, Sergey Brin and his wife Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg his wife Priscilla Chan, and tech investment guru Yuri Milner, it's safe to say it has a promising future. 

Those funders banded together to launch the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences back in 2013, a move that reflected a growing interest overall in this area. Research from the Science Philanthropy Alliance found that the field constitutes a whopping 84 percent of reported science research giving, totaling $1.9 billion.

This source of this funding is diverse, including grants from the long-established Howard Hughes Medical Institute and a range of newer players, such as the tech donors just mentioned, some deep pocketed donors from Wall Street like Jim Simons, and a rich assortment of other major givers, like Eli and Edythe Broad, who are excited about foundational biomedical research that can lead to progress against a range of diseases. The Broads have now given over $700 million to create and support the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which MIT and Harvard launched in 2004 to use genomics to advance understanding of the biology and the treatment of human disease. 

Most of the private giving for life sciences goes to researchers at universities. And now, yet another big donor is sending money this way. That would be the Indian businessman and philanthropist Rajen Kilachand, who just made a $115 million gift to Boston University (BU). The gift—the largest ever to the school—will create an endowment that finances early research by its faculty and students into life sciences and engineering.

I'll delve into Kilachand's fascinating backstory momentarily. First, however, I'd like to frame his gift within the larger higher ed research landscape.

A Life Sciences Venture Fund

By netting what the Boston Globe's Deirdre Fernandes calls a "venture fund to jump start more collaborative life sciences research," BU could become a force to be reckoned with in the fields of life sciences and engineering. 

We've seen this movie before.

Schools wishing to join the MITs and Carnegie Mellons in the American research pantheon usually can't climb the ladder incrementally. It takes a massive cash infusion to propel schools to the next level.

Consider that the University of Oregon and the Oregon Health & Science University now have a shot at the big time thanks to a pair of $500 million gifts from Phil and Penny Knight. Or that over a billion dollars in gifts from Michael Bloomberg, with large chunks of that for research, has taken Johns Hopkins to the next level. Or that giving on a comparable scale by Gordon and Betty Moore to CalTech has solidified that school's reputation as a top leader in scientific research. 

Or, on a smaller scale, consider the money that's lately been flowing to the University of Washington in Seattle with the explicit goal of vaulting it upward in the higher ed pecking order. That flow includes Paul Allen's recent $50 million endowment gift to establish the Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering at the University of Washington. Ed Lazowska, who holds UW's Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science and Engineering, laid out the school's ambitions accordingly: "The goal here is, instead of there being a top four program, to be a top five program, and for us to be the fifth," behind MIT, Carnegie Mellon, Stanford and Berkeley. 

The gift to Boston University is another example of a school and donor trying to put the pedal to the metal. It also reflects a fact of life known to campus leaders and development officers: When it comes to research, it takes money to make money. Kilachand's gift, practically overnight, puts BU in a much better position to garner federal funding and additional donor dollars. 

At the same time, as we all know, federal research dollars were becoming less plentiful even before President Trump's proposed budget cuts in this area (which Congress so far isn't going along with.) According to the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, the NIH lost 22 percent of its capacity to fund research due to budget cuts, sequestration and inflationary losses from 2003 to 2015. 

Robert Knox, chair of BU's board of trustees, acknowledged the importance of Kilachand's gift against the backdrop of the federal government's retreat. "For the past several years, there have been cuts in research grants that come from the National Institutes of Health," he said. "So it’s critical, it’s absolutely critical, that universities have support from private philanthropy to take up that slack that’s been created by government cutbacks."

Thinking and Giving Globally

Kilachand was born in India in 1932, came to BU in September of 1971, and graduated from BU's Questrom School of Business in 1974. In 1982, he became head of his family’s development company, the Dodsal Group, overseeing its expansion into areas like mining, construction and manufacturing, before moving the company to Dubai in 2004. 

As one could imagine, Kilachand’s philanthropy is global in nature. He has given more than $35 million to health, educational and cultural causes in the United Arab Emirates, Africa and India. His philanthropy is also pretty diverse: For example, he’s a big patron of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

And while it’s always tricky to superimpose the prototypical "immigrant experience" label on any one donor, Kilachand was nonetheless struck by how philanthropy shaped—and continues to shape—the American university system. "Whether it was the Mellons, the Carnegies, or the Rockefellers, it was giving for education," he said. "That’s why the United States is one of the great centers of higher education in the world. It is second to none in the world."

We've heard this kind of sentiment before.

Kilachand's feelings aren’t that different from the scores of Chinese and Chinese-American alumni ramping up their philanthropy across the higher ed space. Many of these donors received a crash course in philanthropy on university campuses, and some walked away impressed and compelled to give back. 

Decades of Cultivation

All of which brings me back to the most recent example of Kilachand's largesse.

In addition to contributing to the life sciences research gold rush, the $115 million gift is an example of yet another tried and true adage in higher education philanthropy: A massive gift is often preceded by a series of "smaller" gifts

I put "small" in quotes because Kilachand’s past gifts to BU were pretty impressive. In 2011, he pledged $25 million to establish the Arvind and Chandan Nandlal Kilachand Honors College. And a year later, upped the pledge by $10 million to renovate the Kilachand Hall, a student resident facility.

Kilachand is in his mid-80s and sitting on a net worth of roughly $2.5 billion. As I said, he has a wildly diverse set of interests ranging from life sciences to jazz, and a philanthropic footprint on at least three continents. What's more, his record-breaking gift to BU continues a trend of accelerated giving over the past six years.

Add it all up, and it's safe to say we haven't heard the last of Rajen Kilachand.