The Gund Heir Funding Autism Genome Research

You may be familiar with the philanthropy of the late George Gund, businessman and philanthropist who started the Gund Foundation, a major Midwestern funder of arts, education and the environment. But among several other Gund Foundations, there’s one that recently made news with a huge grant for autism research. 

Gordon Gund, son of George, oversees two foundations of his own, and while not quite as large as the George Gund Foundation, they give quite a lot to the arts, environment and medical research. The foundations just caught the research world’s eye by making a three-year, $3 million commitment to Autism Speaks, to fund its program to sequence whole genomes of families affected by autism. 

The project, called the Autism Ten Thousand Genomes program, will build on the breakthrough mapping of genetics behind the disease conducted in 2013, which Discover Magazine ranked in the top 100 science stories of the year. It’s an ongoing effort to build a library of whole genomes from families with two or more children on the spectrum, to map out the genetic mutations associated with the disease.

Whole genome sequencing is a laboratory procedure that involves plotting out the complete DNA sequence of one individual organism. Alone, it’s not very useful, but with data on enough individuals, scientists can begin to unwrap the genetic indicators of diseases. The Gund gift will help the autism project ramp up and analyze more than 3,000 genomes. 

So who is Gordon Gund and what do his tandem foundations fund? For starters, Gordon is the CEO of an investment firm, and has a little side hobby of buying sports teams. He once co-owned the San Jose Sharks, and has had varying levels of ownership of the Cleveland Cavaliers. His interest in medical research is somewhat based on his own personal experience, having lost his sight in 1970. A favorite cause of his is therefore blindness research, and his foundations give millions toward research every year, particularly to Foundation Fighting Blindness, which he manages with his wife Llura.

The $3 million grant is also not the first time they’ve supported autism research. In fact, the Gordon and Llura Gund Foundation gave about $1.5 million to Autism Speaks in 2011 and another million in 2012. 

Another big grantee is Earthjustice, the California-based environmental law organization. Gund also gives many scattered, smaller environmental grants. But aside from that, they make more than 100 grants to various medical, research and arts organizations. Research America is a regular grantee, as are the Yale School of Medicine and Department of Epidemiology & Public Health. Cancer research is another big beneficiary, including the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and the American Brain Tumor Association.

There is one big difference between the elder Gund’s foundation and Gordon Gund’s philanthropy—the latter has very little discernible infrastructure or process. The Gordon and Llura Gund foundations have zero paid employees, no guidelines, and few trustees, mostly family. For all practical purposes, they appear to be an off-the-radar vehicle for Gordon and Lura Gund's giving, which doesn't appear to be headed toward further transparency any time soon.