Inside Li Ka-shing's $10 Million Gift to Berkeley

Big doings at Berkeley. This week, the university announced the receipt of a generous $10 million gift from the Li Ka-shing Foundation, for the establishment of the Li Ka-shing Center for Genomic Engineering, and an affiliated faculty chair. Ka-shing—the richest man in Asia—is almost notoriously generous, and he tends to be lured, like a magpie, to shiny, cutting-edge initiatives aimed at advancing medical technology. UC Berkeley played right into his interests—intentionally or not—when they developed CRISPR/Cas9 technology. And now they’re reaping rich—$10 million rich—rewards. Want to follow suit? Of course you do. Read on.

Berkeley professor of chemistry and molecular and cell biology Jennifer A. Doudna, PhD, made headlines in June, 2012, when she published her findings in Science. CRISPR/Cas9 is basically “DNA scissors,” a tool that dramatically reduces the time—and cost—necessary for genomic sequencing. So bread-and-butter lab projects—like, say, breeding a strain of mice that exhibit cleft palate, in order to test genetic therapies for preventing the anomaly—now take weeks instead of the better part of the year. Isolate the genes responsible for the defect, and—snip, snip—splice them into a mouse with the benefit of this “game-changing” technology.

This is exactly the sort of thing that gets Ka-shing’s gears turning, of course. The plastics and technology mogul, with a net worth of $31 billion, likes game-changers. He likes things with the power to transform. He invested $120 million in Facebook, in December 2007, before anyone had an inkling how big it was going to get. This guy is like a savvy Asian cowboy, riding the range, keeping a sharp eye, lassoing the choicest steers and investing in their potential.

So it is here. This $10 million gift follows a substantial 2005 gift, which pledged $40 million to establish the Li Ka-shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences, which opened in 2012. “Professor Doudna’s breakthrough discovery in genomic editing is leading us into a new era of possibilities that we could have never before imagined,” said Li Ka-shing, who serves as foundation chairman. “It is a great privilege for my foundation to engage with two world-class public institutions to launch the Innovative Genomics Initiative in this quest for the holy grail to fight genetic diseases.”

So, how to get in on the action? Well, sorry to disappoint, but there’s no way around it: You have to be West Coast. At least for now. Ka-shing only started giving to U.S. organizations in 2005, and though he’s made sizeable gifts, he hasn’t strayed from the University of California system. He’s built a relationship with them. He likes the way they work. And as far as projects go, well, I’m afraid the only advice we can offer is hard advice to follow: be brilliant. Don’t waste your time trying to woo the man unless your project is nothing short of amazing, something that’s going to be used by millions of people around the world for the rest of time. Doudna’s paper was published in June, 2012. CRISPR/Cas9 has already been used in 125 published papers. There are three startups based on the technology, and several international conferences have been convened. Yeah. This is rock-star stuff. And it’s just what Ka-shing wants.