Eli and Edythe Broad, who are giving away a multibillion-dollar fortune made in real estate and insurance, announced on Thursday their biggest gift so far, a $400 million donation to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
The institute works to discover genetic links to major diseases and determine the molecular causes of disease, which could lead to new ways to diagnose and prevent illnesses and develop medicines.
The money will be managed by Harvard University’s vaunted investment unit with the goal of turning it into a $1 billion endowment that will ensure the institute’s future and make it one of the wealthiest scientific research centers in the world.
“To me, the story isn’t about our gift,” Broad said in an interview, “but about taking an experiment that started just four years ago and making it permanent with an endowment that will enable it to continue to conduct science in a very different and new way.”
The Broad Institute is a rare joint effort between two fiercely competitive institutions, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While Broad has its own scientists, most of the researchers working there are linked to other institutions around the world.
Broad offers them a place to collaborate while maintaining their positions elsewhere and draws together teams of mathematicians, engineers, physicists and scientists from other disciplines to work toward common goals.
“This idea of breaking down the barriers so that scientists view Broad as a sort of free-trade zone for research has been fantastic,” said Eric S. Lander, the founding director of the institute and a leader of the Human Genome Project, which sequenced the human genome.
David Baltimore ’61, the Nobel Prize-winning biologist who introduced the Broads to Lander, said that such a structure was less cumbersome than the traditional model of a research institution housed at a university.
“The institute is able to pay higher salaries to people whose jobs are technical rather than academic, for instance, which is something universities can’t do very easily,” Baltimore said.
The institute also generates a great deal of intellectual property as a result of its research, which is easier to manage within an independent organization, Baltimore said.
The Broads have previously given the institute $200 million, money that Eli Broad said he regarded as venture capital to determine whether the collaborative model would produce significant results.
At the outset, Harvard and MIT each also contributed $100 million, and the institute has attracted gifts of the same size from the Starr Foundation, the philanthropic arm of American International Group, the insurance giant; and the Stanley Medical Research Institute, founded by Theodore and Vada Stanley, who are giving away a fortune made through sales of collectibles.
The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Prostate Cancer Foundation have also financed the institute’s work.
“That was the greatest philanthropic investment we ever made,” Eli Broad said of the initial two gifts he and his wife made in 2004 and 2005.
He cited the institute’s work on the Connectivity Map, a database that can be used to draw connections between genes involved in diseases and various drug therapies, as well as the institute’s discoveries of genes associated with diseases like diabetes, Crohn’s and irritable bowel syndrome.
For instance, the institute’s Stanley Center for Psychiatric Research led a team of scientists that identified the first specific genetic links to schizophrenia, and the center has been involved in similar breakthroughs related to bipolar disease and autism.
“My rough estimate is that a scientific paper emerges about once every three days from collaborations that have come out of this institute,” Lander said.