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Several years back, the leaders of Harvard Medical School and what would become the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences envisioned creating an institute for biologically-inspired engineering. Late last month, Harvard inked a $125 million deal to transform the vision into reality, according to University officials.
The $125 million gift, the largest in Harvard's history, comes from Hansjörg Wyss, a native of Switzerland who graduated from Harvard Business School in 1965. It will go to fund the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering over the next five years. The new institute will be part of the much-touted science complex in Allston, which will also house the Harvard Stem Cell Institute; the Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology Department, a joint venture between the Medical School and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences; and the Medical School’s Systems Biology Department.
Construction for the first science building began this spring and is expected to near completion in July 2011.
The gift trumps the $100 million donated by longtime Harvard benefactor David Rockefeller ’36 in April to support international programs and the expansion of arts education, a priority of University President Drew G. Faust. Wyss' newest donation also brings his total philanthropy to Harvard to at least $150 million, as he gave $25 million in 2004 to support the Business School's doctoral programs.
Wyss, whose net worth is estimated at $6 billion by Forbes magazine, made his fortune from Synthes, a Swiss-based medical device company. He stepped down as chief executive of the company last year in order to devote more time to his philanthropic pursuits. He now heads the Wyss Foundation, which gives money to environmental causes, including scholarships to students doing graduate work in land conservation.
Wyss declined to be interviewed for this article.
In interviews, Harvard administrators hailed the gift for its ability to strengthen the University's nascent efforts in engineering.
"It’s a field that we have had some investment in,” Faust said in an interview. “But this will just jump-start us into a whole new level and set up a program that will be vibrant and bring together the Medical School and the School of Engineering and the Faculty of Arts and Sciences all together and the hospitals.”
The institute, which Faust described as “the kind of cross-unit collaboration as well that crosses intellectual boundaries,” will be a combined project between SEAS and the Medical School with faculty members from both institutions leading the initiative. Though the two schools are currently slated to be the major players of the project, Frans A. Spaepen, who became interim dean of SEAS this September, said that there has been interest in collaborating with other institutions in the area such as MIT and Boston University.
A Harvard administrator accidentally shared news of the gift with Crimson reporters in a regularly scheduled interview last month, but University administrators asked Crimson editors to hold off on publishing news of the donation because the terms of the gift's announcement had not yet been finalized.
THE GAME OF BIOENGINEERING
The Wyss proposal comes at a time when bioengineering—one of the fastest growing concentrations in the United States—is ready to take center stage at the University. Bioengineering was identified as an important priority five years ago, Provost Steven E. Hyman said, citing the transition of DEAS into its own school last fall as an example of a heightened commitment to the applied sciences.
Medical School Dean Jeffrey S. Flier said that upon taking the helm of the school in July 2007, he adopted the view, widely held at SEAS, that bioengineering needed to be developed at Harvard. The Medical School released slew of committee reports this summer—the most detailed and substantial of which called for the creation of a University-wide bioengineering initiative, concluding the first phase of the strategic planning process launched last October.
Though the report, commissioned by Flier and former SEAS Dean Venkatesh “Venky” Narayanamurti, is by no means a final plan, Flier said that the proposed ideas seem to be “very, very reasonable” and that implementation will likely follow the appointment of a permanent dean of SEAS and approval from the University.
Flier said that the Wyss gift would fuel a serious piece of bioengineering activity at the Harvard, but that the gift by itself would not fulfill the University’s aspirations in developing bioengineering.
“The gift would hopefully put a stake in the ground,” Flier said, adding that the Medical School is also ready to contribute financially to the institute. “But coming as it is with certain, specific intentions of the donor, it does not fully do what I believe the University will want to do in the broad area of bioengineering.”
Flier said that for example, the Wyss Institute, which he classified as a research and faculty-building program, is not structured as an educational program.
One component of the report called for the creation of an undergraduate concentration in two years and a graduate program for bioengineering in one, and Flier said that establishing such a curriculum would depend on additional resources and efforts from the University.
Implementation of a bioengineering curriculum as per the ambitious time-table is contingent on whether a permanent dean of SEAS is appointed. Hyman said that the new dean should have an instrumental role in developing the curriculum and “a sense of ownership.”
At this point in the recruitment process, Hyman said, it is too difficult to determine whether there will be delays in the proposed timeline.
“But that doesn’t mean we’re backing off [the timeline],” Hyman added. “Harvard is late to the game in bioengineering. But we're at an intellectual inflection point, and this is a great time to get into it.”
THE ‘REAL THING’
Though Harvard may be late in developing bioengineering, the University hopes that its plans will allow it to leapfrog the competition.
“Mr. Wyss did not want to simply re-create today’s biomedical engineering,” Hyman said. “Rather, he insisted that we build the bioengineering of the future.”
And Wyss is not afraid to underwrite high-risk research.
The $125 million gift will allow for such work and technology development at a time when federal financial support for science research is frozen, according to Medical School and SEAS professor Donald Ingber, who will be the founding director of the Wyss Institute.
Funding for the National Institutes of Health, which controls the lion's share of funding for biomedical research, has been stagnant in recent years, and the spending bill passed by the U.S. Senate last week would maintain current levels of funding for financial aid and research through March—both of which translate into a decline in real terms.
“What we’re trying to do is to cross boundaries between fields, between schools, between institutions, between academia and industry—cross boundaries that you don’t usually see crossed at academic institutions,” said Ingber, who is a pathologist at Harvard-affiliated Children's Hospital Boston.
In past years, Ingber said, bioengineering focused on the application of engineering principles to solve problems in medicine. Though this approach has been fruitful, the bioengineering of the future, as envisioned by Ingber and his colleagues, will break down the boundaries between the living and nonliving systems, paving the way for new engineering principles and technologies. The technologies, Ingber said, will then be translated into new products.
“The research institute will almost be like a research and development start-up in an academic environment,” Ingber said. “It will be very different from what has been done at Harvard in past years.”
In the meantime, Ingber said that he will continue to recruit faculty from across the University for the institute and begin moving laboratories into temporary locations next year, first at the Harvard Institute of Medicine Building in the Longwood Medical Area and then at the Northwest Science Building in Cambridge campus, before the final move to Allston in 2011.
Ingber said that he hopes the institute will be linked to many other graduate schools at Harvard, including the Graduate School of Design and the Business School, as well as provide a multidisciplinary research experience for undergraduates.
“The long-term goal is to harness the real power of Boston that no place in the world can compete with,” Ingber said. “The ability to interact with faculty across Harvard, its hospitals and its neighboring universities, the big pharmaceutical companies and biotech start-ups, the IT companies—Boston has it all.”
Ingber said that the creation of the Wyss Institute evidences the strongest commitment to bioengineering that he has seen in his 25 years at Harvard.
"It's really huge and exciting, and I think it represents the fascinating direction in which science is moving,” Faust said. “Bioengineering would have been thought of as a contradiction in terms a generation ago."
—Clifford M. Marks contributed to the reporting of this story.
—Staff writer June Q. Wu can be reached at email@example.com.
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