Braun Labs Opens Up a New Biology

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1982

In the late 1970s, researchers at the California Institute of Technology were ramping up new investigations in human biology, talking about establishing a specialized cancer center, and doing all of this in an interdisciplinary, technology-heavy way. The university’s scientists and administrators convinced John Braun to give a building that soon became an important center for new kinds of scientific collaboration. One researcher called it “a beautiful example of philanthropy encouraging innovation and creating new opportunities that didn’t exist before.” Funded by a large gift from the Carl F. Braun Trust (a philanthropy growing out of one of the world’s leading engineering and construction companies), plus four other foundations, two companies, and four major individual donors, Braun Laboratories mixed researchers from the Caltech biology and chemistry faculties with some very advanced equipment and labs. The end result was to jump-start scientific work in recombinant DNA, monoclonal antibodies, and other early innovations in biotechnology. “We’re talking about investigations of the fundamental structure and mechanisms of life itself,” stated Caltech president Marvin Goldberger at the building’s dedication.

Asked by Philanthropy magazine why the laboratory was so important, biologist Leroy Hood explained that “Federal funding has almost always focused on specific kinds of projects. It isn’t focused on creating infrastructure—and it’s the infrastructure that’s so essential to making the house that really good people can work in. That was the point at Caltech with the Braun building. Suddenly we had 200,000 square feet into which we could bring all sorts of new people and things. And without that enabler we couldn’t have made that jump. You don’t get federal grants and contracts in general to build new buildings and create new visions and do those kinds of things. It’s philanthropy that fuels these new opportunities and opens up innovation in exciting ways…. I think at really excellent places like MIT or Caltech or Harvard, new innovation almost always comes from philanthropy.”