The Ellison Medical Foundation
Paving a New Path for Aging Research
By Aubrey de Grey, PhD
Larry Ellison is a speculator. He is also a visionary. Not afraid of risk or ridicule, this maverick mogul of Silicon Valley built his Oracle software empire (and his $39.5 billion net worth) with less than $2,000 in savings on a philosophy that dismisses convention; and it is exactly that philosophy that he is betting on to change the face of aging and age-related diseases.
Some may know him for his high-dollar, daredevil lifestyle, like owning the fastest sailboat in history and racing it and leading Team Oracle to a 2010 World Cup victory, flying his Italian F-16 fighter jet for fun, or owning the largest private yacht in the world. But few will know he has a serious philanthropic side that is just as focused as his business acumen.
The Ellison Medical Foundation is the largest private funder of research on aging and the second largest overall funder—second only to the federal government’s National Institute on Aging. Since its inception in 1998, Ellison’s Medical Foundation has provided more than $300 million to fund basic biomedical research on aging relevant to understanding life span development processes and age-related diseases and disabilities, including stem cells, telomeres, longevity genes, DNA and mitochondrial damage, Werner Syndrome, Alzheimer’s disease, neural development, degeneration and cognitive decline, and cellular response systems to aging and toxins.
It is said the research foundation began not so much from altruistic origins but from the confluence of Ellison’s interest in science and an aversion to mortality. Cancer killed Ellison’s adoptive mother when he was in college and Oracle co-founder Robert Miner in 1994.
A chance encounter with an equally visionary scientist, the late Nobel laureate Dr. Joshua Lederberg, led Larry Ellison to understanding the therapeutic and market potential of biotechnology.
After hearing Lederberg, an icon of molecular biology and artificial intelligence, speak on the topic at a Stanford University symposium in 1990, Ellison was so intrigued by the scientist that he invited him to his home for a weekend. That weekend turned into a lifelong friendship. In 1994, Lederberg returned the favor with an invitation to vacation with him for two weeks—in the lab. Never one to pass up a challenge, Ellison took Lederberg up on the offer, likely to explore his own interests in molecular biology and science.
During those 14 days, pushed by his own interest to challenge himself, Ellison starting asking questions that altered the course of Lederberg’s experiments and would change the face of aging research in this country for years to come.
Thus, over the next several years, the beginnings and mission of The Ellison Medical Foundation focused on aging emerged. Lederberg, who was then president emeritus of Rockefeller University, was tapped as director of the Scientific Advisory Board, and Dr. Richard Sprott became the new Foundation’s executive director, after years directing the National Institute of Aging’s Biology of Aging Program.
“One of the problems with philanthropy is that people think that once they’ve written the check they’re done,” noted Ellison when asked about his charitable activities. “I believe that in order to be a successful philanthropist, you not only have to write the check but you have to spend enough time with these projects to make sure you are getting results.”
And for Ellison, the road to results is often the one least traveled by others. Not surprisingly, The Ellison Medical Foundation’s approach is different, innovative, and bold. As Lederberg once put it, “Our job is to fund the new, the unconventional, and to take chances that others won’t. Our only criterion will be the best science and the best of scientists.”
Cutting-edge Aging Research still Underfunded
Fifteen years later, The Ellison Medical Foundation continues to “fund people, not projects,” according to Sprott, looking for scientists with track records of creative, productive work and unique ideas, while favoring basic research that may be too risky or speculative to attract mainstream funding. This year, The Ellison Medical Foundation will award a total of $40 million to 25 Senior Scholars and 25 New Scholars, each for four years. “At the moment, that means that at any point in time we are funding 200 laboratories,” says Sprott. And the funding levels are significant. Senior Scholars are awarded about $1 million for 4 years of research, according to Sprott. New Scholars receive approximately $400,000 for four years of research.
“My reason for coming here could be summed up with the notion that basic biologic research on aging was the least well-funded research at the National Institute on Aging,” says Sprott. “And it still is.”
While all of the degenerative and proliferative diseases of aging are related to basic biological, genetic and molecular processes, “no Congressman believes that he or she or his constituents die of basic biology—they die of diseases,” says Sprott. “And so it doesn’t sound very sexy. It is very hard to attract research dollars for basic biology,” Sprott frustratingly notes. “Even in the view of Josh and Larry and the advisory board, the only long-term solution to age-related problems is to prevent them. And you can only do that with basic biological research. Anything else you do is playing catch up. Unfortunately, most of the money is going to fixing diseases that are already in place. So The Ellison Medical Foundation particularly wishes to stimulate new, creative research that might not be funded by traditional sources or that is often under-funded in the US,” says Sprott.
And despite his personal losses from cancer, there are no specific diseases that motivate Ellison or drive The Ellison Medical Foundation’s work, according to Sprott. Ellison is so devoted to basic aging research that the foundation started to focus exclusively on identifying and funding research opportunities that could lead to “quantum leaps” or “paradigm shifts” in scientific understanding that greatly impact human health.
“Larry is one of those people who truly understands the need for basic science, and he clearly understands the need for focus. We focus very sharply,” says Sprott. “If we funded a broader variety of things, we would have much less impact on any of them. And I think he appreciates that’s the way you really get something done.”