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Joan and Sandy Weill give $106 million for brain disease research at UC Berkeley, UCSF and University of Washington

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Billionaire philanthropists Joan and Sandy Weill of Sonoma announced Tuesday their gift of $106 million to launch a research initiative at three universities aimed at finding treatments for brain and nervous system diseases estimated to cost the nation more than $1.5 trillion a year.

The couple, who decamped from New York City to a 362-acre hilltop estate in the hills near Sonoma in 2010, are funding the Weill Neurohub, an entity that will link scientists at UC Berkeley, UC San Francisco and the University of Washington in pursuit of treatments and possibly cures for a host of maladies, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, anxiety, depression, traumatic brain injury and spinal cord injury.

The latest gift brings to more than $300 million the sum donated by the Weills to the field, including $185 million to establish the Weill Institute for Neurosciences at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus in 2016 — said to be the largest donation ever made by residents of Sonoma County.

Sandy Weill, 86, is the former chief executive and chairman of Citigroup, which he built into the world’s largest bank before the financial meltdown of 2008. He is a part owner of Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.

In an exclusive interview at their 11,600-square-foot Tuscan-style home, Sandy Weill said his investment in brain disorders is partly personal, the result of watching his mother suffer and ultimately die from Alzheimer’s after more than 20 years.

In her final 15 years, his mother could not recognize anyone, including her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, nor speak a word. “The only thing she could do is walk … it was horrible,” he said.

His philanthropy, Weill said, is also based on the idea that keeping his brain active in retirement from a 48-year Wall Street career could be a defense against neurological disorder.

A Brooklyn native and the son of Polish Jewish immigrants, Weill said he has “always looked at working with the underdog,” and neurology qualifies because more progress has been made fighting cancer, cardiovascular and infectious diseases.

Brain disease is more challenging because “it is the most complicated part of our body,” he said.

A press release announcing the donation noted the human nervous system involves “hundreds of billions of nerve cells and support cells (that) form as many as 100 trillion connections in intricate three-dimensional networks throughout the brain and spinal cord.”

To cope with that complexity, the Neurohub will tap the supercomputing and artificial intelligence resources of the U.S. Department of Energy’s 17 national laboratories, a partnership that matches Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s interest in using those capabilities to boost scientific discovery.

In the press release, Perry said scientists are “on the cusp of great discoveries” that could improve treatment of neurological and psychiatric disorders, calling it a “win-win for science and the public sector — and, eventually, for patients.”

The concept underlying the Neurohub is to forge collaboration between neuroscientists and experts from other fields, including engineering, computer science, physics, chemistry and mathematics.

“We’re pulling together really bright people who like working with each other … and really want to do more together,” Weill said.

Hailed as a consummate deal-maker in the financial world, Weill said the $1.5 trillion yearly expenditure on neurological disorders represents nearly 9% of the market value of the nation’s finished goods and services, a cost that will increase as Americans, especially the 74 million baby boomers, grow older.

California, with the nation’s largest aging population, faces “particularly formidable challenges,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said in the press release, thanking the Weills for their philanthropy.

“Together, we must accelerate the development and use (of) cutting-edge technology, innovation and tools that will advance research and practical application that will benefit people across the world and for generations to come,” Newsom said.

The Weills, who have been married 64 years, were early signers of the Giving Pledge, established by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett requiring billionaires to promise to give away more than half of their wealth.

Asked if they had met the standard, the Weills said they had “more than done that.”

On its running list of the world’s wealthiest people, Forbes estimates Sandy Weill’s net worth at more than $1 billion.

The Weills’ support for education, medicine and the arts amounts to $1.25 billion in pledges and gifts.

They are best known locally for donating $12 million to Sonoma State University for completion of the Green Music Center in 2011, when it was described as the largest single cash gift in the school’s history.

Sandy Weill said the couple “look at philanthropy as much more than just giving money” and includes giving “your time and your passion and your enthusiasm and your leadership.”

Their estate, named Casa Rosa and purchased for $31 million, took the place of a Central Park West penthouse the couple sold for $88 million in 2011. After trading the bustling Big Apple for laid-back Sonoma, with about 11,600 residents, the Weills said they have settled in as Californians.

“We looked around to see if there was a place that had a higher tax rate than New York and we found it,” Weill joked, sitting in a room with a spectacular view of Sonoma Valley and the outline of Mount Diablo in the distance.

The Weills weren’t always heavy hitters in philanthropy; they noted their Weill Family Foundation started 52 years ago, making three gifts totaling $120.

Sandy Weill went to work on Wall Street as a brokerage runner making $150 a month in 1955. Joan Weill made more money as a substitute teacher working two days a week.

Now, they anticipate their fortune will help make a difference.

“I think that the decade we’re coming into in two months is going to be the decade of real breakthroughs in neurological diseases and hopefully some cures,” Sandy Weill said.

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