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Billionaire Harvard alumnus donates $350 million to Boston’s Wyss Institute

Hansjörg Wyss has made his largest donation yet to the center, which focuses on cutting-edge research in fields such as synthetic biology and robotics.

Hansjörg Wyss, founding donor of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University, has donated another $350 million to the research center.COURTESY OF MISIA LANDAU

Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss has made his fourth and largest gift yet to the Boston-based research institute bearing his name. The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University announced a new $350 million donation from its namesake donor on Thursday, one of the biggest gifts in the university’s history.

The Wyss is renowned for its cutting-edge research in synthetic biology, diagnostics, and robotics that often blurs the line between biology and engineering, and prides itself on pushing its scientists to develop projects that could have real-world applications.

Scientists at the Wyss have developed “organ-on-a-chip” models that may one day replace animal testing. The group’s work on “soft robotics” could support gentler interactions between robots and humans. And a bevy of new testing techniques pioneered there could enable cheaper, faster, and more accurate testing of COVID-19 and other diseases.

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Wyss, who graduated from Harvard Business School in 1965, has now donated $731 million to the institute since its founding in 2009. During the institute’s 13-year history, research at the Wyss has led to nearly 4,000 patent filings, more than 100 licensing agreements, and the founding of more than 50 startups.

“Hansjörg wanted Harvard to become competitive with places like Stanford, which was attracting all the entrepreneurial young people,” said Dr. Donald E. Ingber, the Wyss Institute’s founding director. “Our mission is to get technologies out of the lab and to the bedside or marketplace as quickly as possible.”

The 87-year-old businessman and philanthropist made his fortune from Synthes, a medical device and orthopedics company that he sold to Johnson & Johnson for about $20 billion in 2012. His net worth is about $7.9 billion, according to Bloomberg.

Ingber said that unlike many large gifts to universities, Wyss’s donations are not endowments or funds for new buildings. Instead, they support the center’s operational expenses, which routinely top $80 million annually. More than half of the institute’s funding comes from grants, but Ingber said that the new gift would “provide stability” for the next decade.

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Don Ingber (left) spoke with Laura Brass behind notes written on the glass walls in a conference room at the Wyss Institute in Boston in 2011.The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

“It really pays for the key staff that you usually do not see in academia — people with entrepreneurial, business development, and product development experience who are integrated with the best young, brilliant minds,” Ingber said.

The Wyss comprises 27 scientists from Harvard, MIT, and other Massachusetts institutions who devote part of their time to the Wyss, plus 375 full-time employees. Ingber said he’s committed to keeping the headcount below 400 to help maintain the “entrepreneurial culture.”

Although medical-oriented research has formed the backbone of the Wyss, the institute is increasingly interested in nonmedical fields, including sustainability. One group is devising a protein-based coating that could be applied to plants to make them drought resistant. Another group is searching for plastic-eating microbes. And another team of scientists has identified natural compounds that may help prolong the shelf life of produce without the need for cold storage.

The Wyss is sandwiched among the Longwood medical area’s many hospitals, but in the spring it will move into a new building about half a mile north in the Fenway neighborhood at 201 Brookline Ave. The Wyss signed a 15-year lease for three floors of the 14-story building which was built by Alexandria Real Estate Equities.

The gene editing company Verve Therapeutics, the cancer drug company Tango Therapeutics, and the local life sciences investment firm Third Rock Ventures have also leased space in the building — part of a trend for growing firms to look outside the expensive and congested Kendall Square in Cambridge, which is still the epicenter of the region’s biotech industry.

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“Fenway is sort of the next Kendall Square. It’s just exploding,” Ingber said. “So we’re very excited to be in the middle of that.”


Ryan Cross can be reached at ryan.cross@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @RLCscienceboss.