The Big (and Still Newish) Foundation Quietly Giving Millions for Biomedical Research

We write often about top individual philanthropists who are directing large chunks of money toward cutting-edge biomedical research projects—people like Paul Allen, Jim Simons, Mark Zuckerberg, Sandy Weill, and many others. 

But it's important to remember that some big legacy foundations are in this game, too, and are also deploying gobs of money to tackle key challenges in medical research.

One of the most important of these funders is the Helmsley Charitable Trust, which last year reported assets of $5.5 billion and gave out $279 million in grants last year. Most notably, since 2008, Helmsley has poured $300 million into an ambitious effort taking on Type 1 diabetes. 

But Helmsley is also interested in other areas of biomedical research, including bolstering key building blocks of research knowledge that can be applied across multiple health challenges. One focus of it interest is inflammation, which factors into nearly every major disease. Here’s how the folks at Cleveland Clinic explain it: “Inflammation occurs naturally in your body. But when it goes wrong or goes on too long, it can trigger the disease process.” They aren’t just talking about diseases like cancer and diabetes, they’re also talking about brain-related illnesses like Alzheimer’s and depression.

In other words, this is a great focal point for new research that could yield broad dividends. Which explains why Helmsley recently announced a $25 million grant to the Salk Institute for “an ambitious range of projects aimed at understanding the role chronic inflammation plays in driving human disease.” The grant will provide Salk research teams with three years of collaborative and interdisciplinary research funding toward the discovery of new diagnostics, therapeutics and preventative measures.

This latest grant helps researchers build on the previous work conducted at Salk, funded by a $42 million grant from Helmsley awarded in 2013. That initial grant launched the Salk Fellows program and also reportedly led Salk scientists to “amazing” discoveries in diabetes, neuroscience, and cancer. Even prior to that massive grant Helmsley had a major funding love affair with Salk, awarding millions in grants to the world-renowned research institute since 2008.

Related: Why the Helmsley Charitable Trust Spends Big on Salk Institute Research

Helmsley isn’t the only outfit giving big toward advancing knowledge of diseases—and how our bodies respond to them—at a molecular level. In 2014, real estate mogul Conrad Prebys donated $25 million to the Salk Institute to grow its unrestricted endowment. The funds offered flexibility for Salk's scientists. For Prebys, the big give was a way to support the “vital work” conducted by Salk researchers who are “diving deep into understanding how our bodies operate at a molecular level and what happens when we get sick.” 

Related: It’s Personal: Why This Real Estate Mogul is Funding Disease Research

It's worth reminding folks how new the Helmsley Charitable Trust really is. It didn’t begin making significant grants until the end of 2008, committing around $50 million that year, focusing on medical research and health organizations. It has now funds in several such areas besides Type 1 diabetes and basic research. Grants also go for inflammatory bowel disease and Crohn’s disease as well as for rural healthcare in the U.S., as we often report. 

RelatedMost Foundations Neglect Rural America. Here's a Big One That Doesn't