Weill Family Foundation gifts $106M for public-private 'Neurohub'

The Weill Family Foundation (WFF) is stumping up $106 million to create a so-called “Neurohub” that aims to unite the University of California, San Francisco, UC Berkeley and the University of Washington in an effort to seek out new treatments for brain diseases.

There has been a dearth of R&D success in combating diseases of the brain, with flops, failures and setbacks aplenty in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease as well as post-traumatic stress disorder, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, multiple sclerosis, mental health issues, Parkinson’s disease and more: The WFF is hoping to change that with its venture.

The Weill Neurohub is set up as a research network that “will forge and nurture new collaborations between neuroscientists and researchers working in an array of other disciplines: including engineering, computer science, physics, chemistry, and mathematics, to speed the development of new therapies for diseases and disorders that affect the brain and nervous system,” it says in a statement.

Specific targets have not been made public, but the idea is to use deeper collabs, new tech and new techniques to help treat an array of brain diseases.

On a practical level, the Weill Neurohub will provide funding for faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students at the UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley and UW working on cross-disciplinary projects, including funding for “high-risk/high-reward” proposals “that are particularly innovative and less likely to find support through conventional funding sources,” the group said.

But the bulk of the Weill Neurohub’s funding “will support highly novel cross-institutional projects built on one or more of four scientific ‘pillars’ that Weill Neurohub leaders have deemed priority areas for answering the toughest questions about the brain and discovering new approaches to disease: imaging; engineering; genomics and molecular therapeutics; and computation and data analytics.”

Further collabs with businesses, academics or philanthropic ventures are also in the cards.

“The gains in knowledge amassed by neuroscientists over the past few decades can now be brought to the next level with supercomputers, electronic brain–computer interfaces, nanotechnology, robotics, and powerful imaging tools,” said Sandy Weill, chairman of the Weill Family Foundation.

“The Neurohub will seize this opportunity by building bridges between people with diverse talents and training and bringing them together in a common cause: discovering new treatments to help the millions of patients with such conditions as Alzheimer’s disease and mental illness.”

This follows a long line of wealthy philanthropist groups funneling cash into diseases with the hopes of finding new ways of tackling bug killers like cancer. 

Three years ago, Facebook and Napster pioneer Sean Parker set up a $250 million immuno-oncology center, and has been adding his backing to several other ventures since in the hopes of beating cancer.

Parker and Weill join a growing list of wealthy entrepreneurs hoping to boost R&D. The estate of billionaire shipping magnate Daniel Ludwig donated $540 million to six cancer centers in 2014, and Nike co-founder Phil Knight pledged $500 million to cancer researchers at Oregon Health & Science University in 2013.