The Unlikely Funder Behind a Hefty Big Data Grant

 photo: BEST-BACKGROUNDS/shutterstock

photo: BEST-BACKGROUNDS/shutterstock

In recent years, big data has been a big deal in the research community and private sector—and also among philanthropists looking to back leaders in the field. The latest major gift supporting data science and its varied applications comes from an unlikely source: the Koret Foundation, a Bay Area funder which is known more for its support of the arts and Jewish causes. 

The reason for the $10 million grant, which brings together two California schools and Tel Aviv University, has everything to do with Koret’s interest in supporting both Bay Area institutions and Jewish causes. The result is a nice chunk of funds aimed at using data science and computation toward advances in medicine and how cities function.  

The five-year grant supports three schools—UC Berkeley, Stanford, and Tel Aviv University—and actually funds two programs, with the shared connections of Tel Aviv, and big data as the underlying subject matter. 

Related: 

The first will establish the Koret Program for Bioinformatics and Computational Biology, a center that will develop tools to study genomic data and other medical and patient data. TAU and Berkeley each have their own computational biology centers, and funding will support research grants and joint programs, including seminars, workshops and a visiting scientist program.

The second is the Koret Program for Smart Cities and Digital Living, based at Stanford in collaboration again with TAU. This one’s pretty different, working out of Stanford’s management and engineering school, and studying big data to improve safety, efficiency and quality of life in cities. It will similarly focus on exchange of information, including an industry-focused conference. Tel Aviv has become one of the world’s leading cities when it comes to so-called “smart city” technology that uses data to improve efficiency. 

Koret doesn’t seem to have a particular interest in data science, so this grant seems mostly tied to the institutions and promising areas of overlap. Koret is a major Northern California community funder that’s been around since 1979, based on the estates of fashion moguls Joseph and Stephanie Koret. Scientific research is not a main priority for the Koret Foundation, but the funder’s big issues are Bay Area institutions and Jewish causes, including strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship. The foundation backs a lot of education and arts causes. 

Koret is still licking its wounds from a years-long, bitter legal battle between Joseph Koret’s second wife Susan Koret and longtime family friend and foundation president Tad Taube. The disputes involved complaints that Taube (who still runs his own foundation) was improperly sending funds to causes in his native Poland and conservative political causes, along with sexual harassment allegations. The legal disputes wrapped up in 2016 with both parties stepping down from the Koret Foundation board. Things seem to have quieted down under its new leadership.  

The foundation joins a number of donors matching up data science and computation with other research disciplines. We’ve seen several alumni and regional grants seeking to help universities gain a foothold in this arena. Science funders like Moore and Simons are also big backers. Simons in particular has devoted an entire, in-house research institute toward the combination of biology, physics, and astrophysics with computation and data.  

Related: