“The Next Exciting Phase.” What a Big Science Research Donation Says About Higher Ed Giving



Higher ed funders’ infatuation with fields like data science, artificial intelligence and computer engineering remains strong, and it’s easy to see why. Alumni and corporate donors seek to attract and cultivate world-class students, build a talent pipeline for next-generation jobs, and boost regional economic development.

Recent news out of Chicago finds a funder driven by similar motivations, but staking out somewhat unchartered territory. The University of Chicago announced a $75 million commitment from the Pritzker Foundation to support the new molecular engineering school, becoming the first university in the United States with a school dedicated to this emerging field. By funding a major expansion of its research and education programs in areas like quantum engineering, biotechnology and energy storage, the new gift renames the Institute for Molecular Engineering the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering. It is the university’s first new school in three decades.

The Pritzker Foundation’s support for molecular engineering dates back to 2011, when it began to provide funding for the institute. The foundation had given $25 million for molecular engineering studies at the university prior to its recent announcement, proving once again that small gifts often lead to larger gifts. (Or in this case, mega-gifts lead to super-mega gifts.)

“I became interested in molecular engineering nearly a decade ago when it was just a bold idea, recognizing the potential for the university to help build a new field of study,” said Tom Pritzker, chairman and CEO of the Pritzker Organization, which manages the various Pritzker family business assets. “Molecular engineering could provide a disruptive approach to translational science, while supporting the continuing evolution of the University of Chicago and becoming a catalyst to make Chicago a center of excellence in scientific innovation.”

So Many Pritzkers, So Much Philanthropy

In 2016, Forbes listed the Pritzkers as the seventh-wealthiest family in the U.S., pegging the clan’s net worth at $29 billion. The name may not ring a bell, but the source of their wealth will—Hyatt Hotels. Patriarch A.N. Pritzker created the chain along with his sons Jay, Donald and Robert. When Jay passed away in 1999, the family spent most of the 2000s in court arguing over trusts. When the dust settled, 11 Pritzkers walked away with over $1 billion each.

J.B. Pritzker became Illinois governor last year after spending $171.5 million of his own money to land the job. By doing so, Pritzker, with a net worth of $3.2 billion, became the richest sitting politician in the country, eclipsing President Trump, whose net worth stands at approximately $3.1 billion. A formidable philanthropist in his own right, the new governor is best known for his tireless championing of early childhood education.

The larger Pritzker family consists of many philanthropists, with most of their giving focused on Chicago, where Hyatt is based. Causes range from traditional family business interests to investing, film, Buddhist spirituality and public service. The Pritzker Foundation is made up of four trustees from the Pritzker family: Tom, Nick, Penny and Gigi Pritzker.

Regular readers of Inside Philanthropy will notice that we write often about giving by various Pritzkers. Yet even we can get confused by the maze of family foundations and the wide range of causes that Pritzkers support. But fear not: Check out this piece, which lays out the basics in one place, along with links to the two dozen articles we've written about Pritzker philanthropy so far. 

Positioning Chicago as a Research Hub

The gift finds the Pritzker Foundation looking to position the Windy City as the leading research destination for the burgeoning field of molecular engineering. A Chicago Tribune editorial framed the gift within the context of competition between cities for philanthropy-driven research, job training and economic development. “The economic future of this city plays out daily,” it reads, “as Chicago competes against other major cities in the United States to attract and retain employers, investors, major projects—everything required to spur growth and prosperity.”

And while no one will mistake Chicago as an overlooked “flyover city,” the Pritzker Foundation gift underscores one of the principal drivers of the higher ed philanthropy boom—regional donors’ support for locales not situated on either coast. The editorial reads, “We’re keenly aware, for many reasons, that money and talent don’t need to stay in Illinois. When it comes to tech, the allure of Silicon Valley never fades. For Chicago to boost its global reputation and deepen its talent pool requires constant momentum. Investment in innovation is key.”

The gift highlights the Pritzker Foundation’s emphasis on support for Chicago-area students interested in science, technology, math and engineering. This support includes launching a new partnership with City Colleges of Chicago, in which City College students interested in a four-year STEM degree can access resources of the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering.

The foundation has provided support to a host of UChicago initiatives throughout the years, including Urban Labs, the Urban Education Institute, the Institute of Politics Pritzker Fellows Program, and the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools. The Pritzker School of Medicine was named for the Pritzkers in 1968, and the family has continued to support it ever since.

Calculating Impact

With so much money sloshing around higher ed nowadays, the Pritzker Foundation gift also provides a case study into how donors may gauge impact in the cash-flush higher ed space.

Funders clearly want what’s best for the recipient university. They also keep track of what’s going on at competing institutions and may be susceptible to a herd mentality—or so it would seem, judging by the fact that gifts to certain areas often come in waves. In the last 12 months, we’ve seen donors collectively ramp up support for artificial intelligence, data science and analytics, and, perhaps most strikingly, computer engineering. Donors have given big for computer science initiatives at top-tier institutions like Carnegie Mellon, Stanford, the University of Washington, UC Berkeley and MIT. In May, the Grainger Foundation announced a new $100 million gift and more than $300 million in total support for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s College of Engineering. And in early June, Broadcom billionaire Henry Samueli, along with his wife Susan, announced a $100 million donation to UCLA’s engineering school, the largest gift ever to the engineering department.

Will the big Pritzker gift for molecular engineering trigger new support for this previously neglected area by other higher ed donors? It’s too early to say, although coincidentally, alumnus Sam Fleming give $10 million to Cornell University in support of state-of-the-art molecular engineering labs less than a week after the Pritzker Foundation gift.

The foundation’s recent commitment reveals an intriguing strategic calculus. Should a funder looking to generate maximal impact invest in a crowded field like data science or engineering and go toe-to-toe with hordes of deep-pocketed alumni, funders and elite research institutions? Or should a donor try to make a huge splash in a less mature but no less promising field where it can fully differentiate the recipient university?

The Pritzker Foundation clearly preferred the latter option, building on its extensive relationship with the University of Chicago and its previous $25 million investment in molecular engineering, which, according to officials, has yielded impressive returns. The university’s molecular engineering footprint now encompasses 28 faculty and about 300 people in all, including undergraduates, Ph.D. students, postdoctoral researchers and research staff. To date, the university’s scientists and engineers in molecular engineering have filed 69 invention disclosures and launched six companies.