Six thousand. That’s the number of children that Atlanta’s Marcus Autism Center will serve this year. It’s more than any other center in the country by far. And Bernie Marcus, who made his fortune as the co-founder of Home Depot, couldn’t be more proud. Since 1991, Marcus has given around $100 million to the center, and tens of millions more to other autism-related causes, almost single-handedly putting the disorder on the mental map of Americans.
The center began when Marcus saw the distress of a young employee, the mother of an autistic child, who was having difficulty finding help for him at a time when many families and medical practitioners weren’t even sure what to call this particular syndrome of problems. Through sheer force of will, Marcus launched his clinic in two trailers, and began to pour money into treatment and research of the disease. The center reached a turning point in 2011, when Marcus convinced the eminent researcher Dr. Ami Klin to leave Yale University and become its director. Klin and his team have developed a revolutionary eye-tracking technology that can identify autism in the first year of life, dramatically increasing opportunities to intervene before problems take root. The device, which is awaiting approval from the FDA, would enable early-stage diagnosis and treatment that is both more effective and less expensive. Currently, most autistic kids are not diagnosed until they begin school.
The Marcus Autism Center is now at the forefront of research the condition. Almost 3,600 investigators from a variety of disciplines attended the major conference there earlier this year—up from 1,200 five years ago. The meeting “showed how far autism research has come in the last ten years,” says Marcus.
How do you build an institution like this? Marcus starts with annual operating support. “In many cases when people give money, they are giving to a project or building or other one-time expense. But operating costs are often the biggest burden. Opening doors can be expensive: there is insurance, rent, liability.” Marcus’s Simon Prize money mostly went toward the general budget of the autism center.
And Marcus emphasizes the importance of finding people you trust. He does in his philanthropy “what you do in a good business. You find the best people.” Particularly in the medical field, says Marcus, there is so much jargon, and so much risk in getting something through a bureaucracy like the FDA, you need to have “someone who can evaluate researchers.”
Marcus took great satisfaction in using his Simon Prize money for the autism center, because a relative of William Simon has been diagnosed with the disorder. “I guess that’s how the world goes around,” he says. “Sometimes you can affect people’s lives. They won’t know you. But the feeling you get should be enough.”