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