Inside Ellison's Innovative Medical Research for the Elderly

As of November 2013, the Ellison Medical Foundation is no longer pursuing biomedical grantmaking. Please read our article about the foundation's sudden announcement here.

In the 1990s, Lawrence J. Ellison was the immensely wealthy CEO of software giant Oracle, and Dr. Joshua Lederberg was a Nobel Prize-winning biologist. Impressed by Lederberg's work on artificial intelligence and biology, Ellison introduced himself to Lederberg. The two became friends and collaborators on what was to become the Ellison Medical Foundation (EMF), now a major funder of innovative research focusing on the elderly. (See Ellison Medical Foundation: Grants for Brain Research and Treatment.)

Ellison prides itself on funding smart people and giving them free reign to explore medical issues surrounding aging. The foundation believes it is filling in gaps created when traditional research funding is not available. Or, as Dr. Phyllis Wise, Ellison proposal reviewer, puts it, "If we get an application we think could be funded by NIH, we don't fund it. We tell them to apply there."

What it lacks in convention, EMF makes up for in resources. Lawrence Ellison is one of the world's richest people, which allows him to do things like buy Hawaiian islands and Russian fighter planes. Ellison is also No. 29 among the Chronicle of Philanthropy's top 50 donors of 2012, having donated more than $45 million to his foundation last year for medical research purposes.

The Ellison Medical Foundation's stated purpose is to find solutions and cures for elderly people affected by age-related disorders. It works toward this goal through several grants programs, including Ellison's Senior Scholars in Aging. The Senior Scholars program awards up to $150,000 a year over a four-year period to researchers engaged in "understanding lifespan development processes and age-related diseases and disabilities." Ellison funded more than 20 research projects through its Senior Scholars program in one year. True to Ellison's reputation for eccentricity, the Senior Scholar projects do sound avant-garde, but they also make clear their funder's passion for improving American health and well-being in an aging society. (Read EMF Executive Director Kevin Lee's IP profile.)

Information on funding for researchers is available here.