Stem Education

Science, technology, engineering, and math or STEM is an area of higher education that is expanding in some respects and shrinking in others. A growing trend is for institutions to combine disciplines such as bioengineering and robotics to create a new area of study. STEM seems to be undergoing a major transformation, which is likely to provide increased fundraising opportunities in the programs for which colleges and universities raise money.

Here at IP we have reviewed major STEM gifts from individual donors over the past few years and are analyzing new gifts nearly every week. This guide explores who's making STEM gifts, who’s getting the money, and what strings, if any, are attached to how the money is spent. 

Who’s Giving?

In the round of STEM gifts of $1 million or more that we examined, just over three-quarters of individual donors were alumni. Of course, this fluctuates from year to year, but it doesn’t stray too far from the three-quarter mark. This large cohort of alumni donors is a mix of people from all backgrounds, not just STEM disciplines. Let’s take a look.

Hansjorg Wyss, founder of Synthes, an orthopedic instrument and bone fracture implant supplier, recently wrote a $125 million check to Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering. The current gift will be used to further research efforts in six areas of study including bioinspired robotics, programmable nanomaterials, biomimetic microsystems, adaptive material technologies, synthetic biology and anticipatory medial and cellular devices. This is Wyss’s second $125 million gift to the Institute. His first was used for the building and construction of the Wyss Institute back in 2008. So Wyss was already a heavy giver to the school, even before he sold Synthes to Johnson & Johnson for a reported $20 billion.

The swiss-born Wyss received his master's degree from the Swiss Federal Instutute of Technology. Interestingly enough, Wyss did attend Harvard, but not in any type of STEM capacity. He attended Harvard Business School.

In another massive nine-digit STEM donation, Irwin and Joan Jacobs gave Cornell University's Technion-Israel Institute of Technology $133 million, which is now known as the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Technion Cornell Innovation Institute. The money will go toward the continued support of the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Graduate School and the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Center of Communication and Information Technologies. The funds will also go toward a two-year interdisciplinary program that gives students the opportunity to earn dual master’s degrees simultaneously. Remaining funds will support curriculum initiatives and faculty/student/industry interactions in a two-year graduate program.

Mr. Jacobs earned his degree in electrical engineering from Cornell, but went on to MIT to earn his master's and doctoral degrees. His wife also earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell. The couple has remained active with the school in various capacities over a number of years.

Individual donors who amassed substantial fortunes in technology and telecommunications are among the most-generous contributors to STEM programs at colleges and universities. In a surprising twist, donors from the finance industry gave just as often, and in aggregate actually gave more to STEM among the donations we examined.

Who’s Getting?

Universities are by far the hands-down winners in the STEM fundraising race. Colleges weren't ignored, however, and received a small share of the recent STEM-related gifts.

Major Universities

When it comes to recent STEM grants, state schools received the most attention. In 2017, University of West Florida received $550,000 to add arts instruction to its STEM curriculum from well-known trial lawyer Fred Levin, pushing his total giving to the institution up to more than $1-million. At the same time, the university received $1.3 million from the National Science Foundation to support students pursuing teaching careers in STEM fields; the money will be used to cover such students’ costs in their junior and senior years.  

Other state schools that received attention from individual donors for STEM programs include Wayne State University, Iowa State University, the University of Rhode Island, Syracuse and Ohio State, just to name a few.

Wayne State University alumnus James A. Anderson and his wife Patricia recently gave $25 million to the university's College of Engineering in Detroit. Anderson serves as president and CEO of Urban Science, a global automotive and retail consulting firm in Detroit, with more than 850 employees in 19 offices around the world.

The $25 million gift will establish the James and Patricia Anderson Engineering Ventures Institute at the Wayne State's College of Engineering. The institute will provide students with mentors (some of them from Urban Science) who will teach them critical entrepreneurial skills such as securing patents. The gift will also endow chairs and several graduate scholarships.

Another recent STEM gift to a state school was a $22 million donation to Iowa State University by an anonymous alumni couple. The gift will help bankroll a planned Student Innovation Center, "a highly flexible, dynamic space that encourages experimentation, innovation, and interdisciplinary investigation."

Private universities receiving big STEM gifts from big donors included Harvard, Brown, and Cornell. Brown was actually awarded two multi-million gifts recently — $25 million from Theresia Gouw and $10 million from Charles and Dianne Giancarlo. Both gifts are going toward the same cause: the expansion of Brown’s School of Engineering through renovations and new construction. The funds will also be used to establish a new Center for Entrepreneurship in the  engineering school.

Both Charles Giancarlo and Gouw graduated from Brown with engineering degrees. Giancarlo is the managing director at Silver Lake, a private equity firm in Menlo Park, California and Gouw is co-founder of Aspect Ventures, a female-led venture capital firm, also in Silicon Valley.


STEM donations to colleges that we examined ranged from $1 million to $27.9 million. That latter multimillion-dollar gift from Kent Rockwell went to Lafayette College.

Rockwell, a Lafayette alumnus and trustee, is CEO of Rockwell Venture Capital. He gave the school 450,000 shares of stock in Rockwell’s 3D printing company, ExOne. When ExOne opened at $18 per share, Rockwell approached then-President Daniel H. Weiss and fundraiser James Dicker about the donation, believing the stock was going nowhere but up. Weiss and Dicker accepted Rockwell’s proposal, and the stock transfer was made.

Rockwell was right about his company’s stock. Lafayette sold its shares in a secondary offering at $62 per share, netting the college the tidy sum of $27.9 million. The millions earned from the stock gift will go toward various STEM initiatives and a new interdisciplinary science facility.

What Are the Gifts For?

If there was an overarching theme in the STEM gifts we examined, it would the expansion of interdisciplinary STEM programs. Donors see where the future of STEM is headed, and they want to be a part of that with million-dollar-plus gifts. These program expansions often involve adding to existing STEM programs or creating new ones, which in many cases leads to new building construction and renovation projects.

Nearly every one of the recent STEM gifts went toward expansion, integration, or some other cross-over effort merging schools or programs previously considered separate entities.

How the Gifts Happen

It isn’t just the deans of engineering and technology schools, chancellors, or presidents approaching donors. Sometimes, it’s the donor making the ask. 

Julius Hegler, for example, recently gave $3 million to Danville Area Community College. Hegler has served on Danville’s board for over two decades. As the story goes, Hegler ran into Tracy Wahlfeldt, executive director of the college's foundation at their local country club. He asked Wahlfeldt what the college needed, and responded to her reply with a check. According to Hegler, “I asked her what was on her wish list, Hegler recalled. "I found a way to do it.”

Healer's gift will be used to construct a 10,000 square-foot addition to the Harry J. Braun Technology Center. Upon his death, the addition will be renamed the Julius W. Hegeler II Advanced Technology Center.The $3 million wasn’t Hegler’s only contribution to Danville. He also pledged to donate $100,000 each year to cover the interest payments on a $3 million bond issuance.

What Strings are Attached?

STEM donors are heavily involved in the planning and construction of the new buildings and additions to which their funds are dedicated. We aren’t sure if this is welcome or not by university officials. Regardless, it’s a pretty common thread among these donors.

Other than that, we don't find too many unusual strings attached to these gifts. Buildings, programs, and endowments almost always bear the name of the donor.

Insights and Tips

Based on the donations we examined, interdisciplinary programs deserve top billing in STEM fundraising efforts. Big donors want to forward STEM progress by combining existing programs to create a new discipline or by simply creating a new discipline from scratch —like Wyss’s contribution for bioinspired robotics.

Alumni making the big STEM contributions typically graduated in or around 1970. There are, of course, exceptions. For example, Theresia Gouw, one of the few female venture capitalists in Silicon Valley, graduated from Brown in 1990.

Needless to say, fundraisers should look for any connection a potential donor has to the institution. Gouw may have made her millions as a venture capitalist, but her Brown engineering degree —not finance or business —is the inspiration for her $25 million contribution to a new and improved School of Engineering at her alma mater. Most affluent STEM donors are alumni and they often also serve on the boards of the colleges and universities receiving their gifts.