Bill Gates Helps Mass-produce DNA Arrays

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1992

One of the first major philanthropic projects of Bill Gates, launched long before he shifted his gaze steadily to philanthropy, came back in 1992. The University of Washington Medical School was trying to create the first-ever cross-disciplinary department of biology. Gates made the new department possible by putting up $12 million of his own money. He told the organizers, “I just want you to understand I am giving $12 million, but I’m in my acquisition phase, I’m not in my philanthropic phase, so don’t expect any more.” That offering was sufficient to launch what became not only a highly successful department but a blooming new discipline of molecular biotechnology.

Among other work, the team at Washington invented an inkjet device for creating DNA arrays that allowed tens of thousands of genes to be read at once. This instrument was soon commercialized and made available to other scientists, and transformed genomics, biology, and medicine. Given estimates by the Battelle Foundation that automated DNA sequencing and the human-genome project may have created in excess of $800 billion of value, this comparatively modest investment yielded potent returns. And philanthropy played a crucial role.