A Swiss entrepreneur has given Harvard University $125 million for the second time in five years, to support a multidisciplinary bioengineering research institute that bears his name.
The first $125 million, provided to found the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering in 2009, was the largest single gift the university had ever received. Now Hansjörg Wyss has doubled the amount, which will be used to continue funding the center.
The Wyss Institute, based in the Longwood Medical Area and Cambridge, takes an interdisciplinary approach to problems that range from developing tools to engineer DNA, to filtering toxins out of blood. The staff of 350 includes a team with experience working at companies, in an attempt to push technologies out of the lab and into the real world.
Two projects are poised to begin clinical trials: a vibrating shoe insole that may help elderly people maintain their balance, and a cancer vaccine to be tested initially in patients with melanoma. The Wyss Institute has a minor product on the market: a vibrating, low-cost bug robot, called the Kilobot, that is an educational and research tool designed to allow engineers to test algorithms that control the collective behavior of swarms.
“We wanted to create a place where the innovation and imagination of the world’s best minds could work beyond disciplinary boundaries to deliver life-changing medicines and technologies that are inspired by nature,” Wyss said in a statement.
Wyss, a graduate of Harvard Business School whose net worth has been estimated to be $8.7 billion by Forbes, was not available for an interview. Much of his wealth comes from his longtime leadership of Synthes, a medical device company that designs products used in orthopedic and trauma treatments and was sold to Johnson & Johnson last year for $19.7 billion.
The donation comes as there is a vogue for translational research, aimed at bridging the gap between academic laboratories and products and drugs useful in the real world. Last month, Harvard announced it had received a $50 million from businessman Len Blavatnik to support translation of biomedical research. A year and a half ago, the National Institutes of Health reorganized, creating a branch focused on translational research. Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer announced in 2011 it would invest $100 million over five years to set up a center that would develop partnerships with Boston-area hospitals and research institutions to help accelerate drug development.
Although many are hopeful that such research efforts will bring laboratory insights to bear on real-world problems, it is unclear what areas of science might benefit most or which model is best, said Julia Lane, an economist with the American Institutes for Research.
Dr. Donald Ingber, founding director of the Wyss, said that what sets the institute apart is that it does not only fundamental scientific research, but all the subsequent legwork, including validating the technology in-house and initiating industry partnerships and business development.
“We developed a bold model that would really focus on high-risk research and that would straddle academia and industry, and that would go from fundamental discovery to technology translation,” Ingber said.
Perhaps most importantly, the contribution comes as federal research funding has been cut. Harvard Medical School recently announced it would shutter its half-century-old primate research center in Southborough, citing financial concerns. Many are worried that young researchers will abandon science altogether, discouraged by the struggle to get funding.
“This additional gift will enable the Institute’s continued success and create new opportunities to improve people’s lives and the world in which we live,” Drew Faust, Harvard president, said in a statement.
Lane said that it appears that private philanthropists are stepping into the gap created by declining government funding. In the last few weeks alone, Harvard has received $175 million in large individual gifts to support scientific research. Earlier this year, a small group of entrepreneurs gave $3 million prizes to 11 scientists for breakthrough research, including scientists from two Cambridge-based biomedical research centers, the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Broad Institute.