Billionaire tech rivals reshaping philanthropy

Governments, drug firms following lead of Ellison, Gates on health research

July 06, 2002|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Bill Gates and Lawrence Ellison have long been rivals - for title of world's richest man, top software innovator, savviest corporate operator.

But in the realm of philanthropy, the founders of Microsoft Corp. and Oracle Corp. are working in unspoken tandem, putting large chunks of their sizable wealth toward defeating some of the world's most intractable diseases.

As their charitable foundations have grown in the past few years, the titans of technology have brought about what scientists describe as a profound shift: prompting drug companies, governments and other philanthropists to spend money fighting overlooked diseases such as malaria, and encouraging young researchers to pursue experiments once looked upon as professional dead ends.

"I would say, at least from the perspective of researchers, that they have literally transformed the landscape," said Alfred Sommer, dean of the Bloomberg School of Public Health at the Johns Hopkins University, which has received money from both.

Gates and Ellison are not the first captains of industry to tackle such global health problems. John D. Rockefeller created a foundation that tried to eradicate malaria, along with a host of other diseases, in the early 20th century.

The Rockefeller Foundation is still active in global health work, and is sponsoring a conference in September that is to include representatives from the Gates and Ellison foundations - the first time the groups founded by business rivals will formally attempt to coordinate their efforts.

In style and scale, the institutions born of the computer billionaires are as different as the men themselves.

Gates, 45, a married father of two, is known as a studious tactician who reads voraciously and works long hours despite his riches. Ellison, 57, is his scrappy challenger - known for his salesmanship, love of beautiful women and risk-taking in sports and business. He's also known for taking shots at Gates, including helping to lead the charge in recent years that Microsoft was an illegal monopoly.

For Gates, health is only a part of a philanthropic program that also includes minority scholarships, library technology and the creation of small high schools. For Ellison, medical research is at the heart of his philanthropy; his foundation is the largest private source of funding for the study of aging.

The $23.1 billion Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest in the world, commands a building overlooking Seattle's gleaming Lake Union. Its Web site features polished photography and text to tell the story of Gates money at work. Just to keep up with the legal requirement that foundations give away 5 percent of their assets each year, the organization must dispense more than $3 million a day.

The Ellison Medical Foundation, in contrast both with Gates and with the profile of its flamboyant founder, operates quietly from a suite of an office building in Bethesda, a few blocks from the National Institutes of Health. It has a staff of four, leaving the duty of spokesman to executive director Dr. Richard Sprott, an expert in the biology of aging hired from the National Institute on Aging in 1998. Rather than launching programs, it funds the work of researchers in two areas - aging and deadly infectious diseases including malaria and tuberculosis - in which government money has been relatively lacking.

"What's particularly hard to fund is basic biological research, because your average U.S. congressman doesn't believe his constituents die of basic biology - which they do," Sprott said.

"What NIH does, it does extremely well," he said. "What they're not able to do as well is fund the high-risk stuff. Ellison made his money taking risks, and we're able to take those risks."

The foundation has no endowment. When moved to do so, Ellison - whose wealth has been cut in half during the past year by the turbulent stock market - writes a check. He has pledged to spend up to $45 million a year (Gates averages that much in two weeks) for the next few years, paying for 80 scholars at a time to pursue experiments that government sources won't support. Informally, he has discussed with Sprott and others eventually spending $100 million a year.

Ellison's scholars are chosen by an advisory board of six scientists. The group's chairman is Joshua Lederberg, a scientific pioneer who discovered genetic recombination of bacteria.

The billionaire playboy and the Nobel laureate began an unlikely friendship a decade ago, when Lederberg gave a lecture at Stanford University about the potential of using computers to solve problems in laboratory experiments. Ellison, who once planned to go to medical school, was in the audience.

A year later, when the scientist was back in town, he had lunch with Ellison, who invited him to stay at the $40 million Japanese-style villa he had constructed in the Silicon Valley town of Atherton. Ellison was so interested in the scientist's research that he worked as an assistant in Lederberg's laboratory for two weeks.

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