Taiwanese multibillionaire gives Scripps Research $12.8M

  • Tang Prize Founder Samuel Yin
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Samuel Yin, a Taiwanese multibillionaire, has donated $12.8 million to the financially strapped Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla to help build a major laboratory complex.

Yin’s gift will be combined with $12.5 million from an anonymous donor to create a center aimed at enabling the elite biomedical institute to save money by consolidating research space. The new center also should make it easier for scientists to collaborate on studies covering everything from cancer to diabetes to dementia.

Yin’s contribution may signal an important turnaround for Scripps Research, which has struggled in recent years to secure enough money from the National Institutes of Health, private donors and the pharmaceutical companies that once heavily backed the nonprofit institute. There have also been significant management problems, some related to a failed attempt by the University of Southern California to take over or merge with Scripps Research.

This is the third gift — totaling about $18 million — the institute has received in the past two years from Yin, a 65-year-old businessman and philanthropist.

“It is my great honor to contribute to the building of new state-of-the-art laboratories, which will further enable major advances in biomedical research at [Scripps Research],” Yin said in a statement describing his latest donation.

Yin is a major figure in Taiwan, where he serves as chairman of the Ruentex Group, a company that focuses on the retail, real estate and financial services sectors. Forbes listed his wealth at $3.8 billion last year, about $300 million less than Trump but $100 million more than H. Ross Perot.

In early 2013, Yin used about $100 million of his money to establish the Tang Prize — a set of international awards given every other year for achievements in a variety of fields. Recipients have included James Allison, a Texas researcher who is pioneering the use of immunotherapy to fight cancer, and Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former prime minister of Norway known for promoting sustainable development.

In 2011, Yin told the Taipei Times that he intends to give away 95 percent of his net wealth during his life to charities and certain causes. He has expressed special interest in supporting science, the arts, law and politics.

Cultivating philanthropists like Yin has become a high priority for Scripps Research.

The institute, which has helped to develop well-known drugs such as Humira, has had to draw down its endowment in recent years to cover deficit spending. The financial problems were caused in part by the institute’s struggles to compete effectively for grants from the National Institutes of Health, which underwrites more biomedical research than any other agency. The institute’s NIH funding fell to $170 million in fiscal 2015, the lowest level since 2001.

Nationwide, many scientists have found it increasingly hard to obtain NIH grants. Until this fiscal year, the agency’s budget was essentially flat for decades.

But Scripps Research also lost many highly funded, top-tier professors to other institutions over the years. And a lot of its contract work for the pharmaceutical industry dried up as those companies changed strategy.

Scripps Research’s neighbors — the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute — have overcome the NIH funding trend with highly successful fundraising campaigns targeting private donors.

Scripps Research struggled to do the same, and the problem worsened in 2014 when its president, Michael Marletta, quietly tried to ally the institute with USC in what was described as a bid for financial stability. Amid an uproar from the institute’s faculty, Marletta resigned.

Last September, the institute took the unusual step of naming two highly regarded scientists as its co-leaders, charged with solving its money and management problems. Peter Shultz became chief executive while Steve Kay stepped in as president. Both men said philanthropy would be central to maintaining the institute’s programs in basic research.

Schultz and Kay also said Scripps Research would sharply focus on partnering with companies in an effort to turn basic discoveries into drugs. They have already deepened ties to the California Institute for Biomedical Research, or Calibr. The La Jolla company, which is run by Schultz, is expected to merge with Scripps Research.

“Mr. Yin understands the direction we’re trying to take Scripps Research through our very, very close relationship with Calibr,” Kay said Wednesday. “He was very excited that it gives us the ability to generate medicines for patients.”