Wyss Institute Receives Second, $125-Million Gift

Harvard's biologically inspired engineering institute garners additional funding from founding donor Hansjӧrg Wyss

Hansjӧrg Wyss

THE WYSS INSTITUTE FOR BIOLOGICALLY INSPIRED ENGINEERING, founded following a 2008 gift of $125 million from Hansjӧrg Wyss, M.B.A. ’65, has received a follow-on gift, also of $125 million. The two gifts are tied as the largest in Harvard’s history. No other single donation to the University has topped $125 million, making Wyss Harvard's most generous donor, perhaps, since its eponymous benefactor. Wyss is a biomedical-device entrepreneur who as CEO built Synthes into the leading supplier of orthopedic instruments and bone-fracture implants before selling it to Johnson & Johnson for about $20 billion last year.

The matching second gift is a strong vote of confidence in the institute’s research accomplishments as it has grown to a collaboration of 18 core and 9 associate faculty members, from Harvard schools and other universities and the affiliated hospitals. (They maintain their teaching and research engagements in their home departments, schools, and institutions, while also pursuing research in the various Wyss programs.) These lead scientific investigators are supported by a full-time staff of more than 350 people, occupying 100,000 square feet of research space in the Longwood and Cambridge campuses.

Wyss's new gift also comes at an opportune time, with the University nearing the public launch of a large capital campaign, in which scientific innovation and engineering are likely to play a large role—particularly with the pending move of the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) to a new home in Allston, where bioengineering work is also likely to be located—at least in part. (Read about SEAS’s research program in bioengineering here, and about its new undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering here).

The University news announcement quoted Wyss as saying:

We wanted to create a place where the innovation and imagination of the world’s best minds could work beyond disciplinary boundaries to deliver life-changing medicines and technologies that are inspired by Nature. I could not have dreamt of the Institute’s remarkable discoveries thus far, and am proud and excited to help them continue to build, explore, and improve lives.

President Drew Faust expressed deep gratitude for Wyss’s support of multidisciplinary research at Harvard. “Through the Wyss Institute, we are realizing his vision—generating promising technologies and building partnerships that extend far beyond our campus,” she said. “This additional gift will enable the Institute’s continued success and create new opportunities to improve people’s lives and the world in which we live.”     

The institute, playing an important role in Harvard's widening interest in bioengineering (as reported in “Life Sciences, Applied,” a Harvard Magazine feature), has produced a string of research discoveries based upon its six “technology platforms”: bioinspired robotics, programmable nanomaterials, biomimetic microsystems, adaptive material technologies, anticipatory medical and cellular devices, and synthetic biology. Among the notable results are:

The institute’s work encompasses Harvard-funded research, corporate partnerships, and federal support, all focused on efforts to accelerate the application of laboratory discoveries to practical, clinical uses. The Wyss technology-transfer operation is an effort parallel to, but separate from, the University's bioaccelerator fund, recently buttressed by the Blavatnik Family Foundation’s $50-million gift (which also underwrites life-sciences-entrepreneurship fellowships at Harvard Business School). The news release on the Wyss gift points to two potential products entering human clinical trials: a cancer vaccine and the vibrating shoe insole. The latter reveals an interesting aspect of the institute's work: according to Gregory Mone's "Better Nature," in the April 2013 issue of Discover, the insole's inventor, Warren Distinguished Professor of biomedical engineering James Collins, of Boston University, was unable to commercialize the technology, created a number of years ago; after he affiliated with the institute in 2010, he worked with industry-experienced staff members, refined the device, and made it more suitable for clinical evaluation.

Folkman professor of vascular biology Donald E. Ingber, of Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital—who is also director of the Wyss Institute and professor of bioengineering in SEAS—said in the University release,  “Four years ago, we were tasked with developing an entirely new model for innovation, collaboration, and technology translation that more effectively bridges academia and industry, and that is precisely what we did.”

In an interview, Ingber said that the institute has used the initial Wyss gift to build its discovery pipeline and to establish mechanisms for conducting frontier research that has a significant potential for practical, commercial applications. Although the institute has attracted $120 million in sponsored-research funding, its core gift makes it possible to "maintain the freedom we have to do high-risk research" driven by the investigators' sense of where fundamental breakthroughs are possible—an approach validated by a stream of papers in Science and Nature emanating from the Wyss faculty. The investigators also benefit from having the funds to support students and associates (undergraduates, graduates, and postdocs) working on these frontier projects in the institute labs. Although the institute may increase its cohort of faculty investigators slightly, Ingber said, the second Wyss gift, also meant to be spent down, is intended to sustain current research, develop and "de-risk" discoveries for commercial testing and application with partners, and move them into practical use. Over time, the institute hopes to become self-sustaining, through royalties from commercial licenses. Including the two applications in clinical trial, he said, nearly 20 licenses have been agreed to or are under discussion.

He also pointed to the value of the institute's broad research program. Although it aims chiefly at biomedical applications, by pursuing work in fields such as materials science—where Berylson professor of materials science Joanna Aizenberg has pioneered SLIPS (slippery, liquid-infused porous surfaces) that may, for example, have applications in anti-coagulants—the scientists' work has opened new avenues of discovery and possible therapeutic use. The cluster of affiliated faculty in synthetic biology has created "a real critical mass" in that emerging field, Ingber said; more generally, he added, the institute was "full speed" across all of its half-dozen platforms and declared, "I'm excited about all of them and the synergies between them."

“Designing from Life,” from this magazine's archives, provided a 2011 update on the institute’s organization and research; at the time,Wyss told the magazine’s reporter, “I think this is a terrific opportunity for Harvard”—suggesting his interest in further nurturing the institute he made possible. Now that has come tangibly to pass.

Read the University announcement here.


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