Bay Area philanthropist gives $25M to Technion for medical research

Lorry Lokey had been meaning to make a donation to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology for 25 years. So when he finally got around to it, he made it count — and count and count.

Lokey, an Atherton resident, founded BusinessWire in 1961 with a $1,500 investment in a teletype machine, a phone and an office. In March of this year he sealed a deal with Warren Buffet selling his “startup” for more than half a billion dollars. But he doesn’t plan on holding onto all of that money for too long.

Lokey donated $1 million to Technion — $1 million for each of the 25 years he’d meant to make a donation, that is.

“It’s a little bit selfish to sit on tremendous excesses of assets until you’re dead. That’s like lording over it. I’m going to enjoy it now and I made that decision 15 years ago. Why give it away if you can’t enjoy seeing what happens?” said Lokey, 79.

“I don’t really count the money I earn. I enjoyed the work and the money was a byproduct. The real pleasure is the combo of doing the work and then seeing the profits [of philanthropy]. I’m not going to live it up like some Silicon Valley billionaires with their $100 million houses and yachts and airplanes. No way. That does no one any good.”

Lokey made his gift during a recent Technion mission to Israel, and it was as spur-of-the-moment as any $25 million donation can be. Over breakfast with Professor Aaron Ciechanover, half of the research team that won Israel’s only Nobel Prizes in the sciences in 2004, he decided he liked the professor’s ideas and wanted to see them through.

So he funded the creation of Technion’s Life Sciences and Engineering Interdisciplinary Research Center, an institute that will marry top-flight engineering and medical research. Sometime down the road thanks to Ciechanover’s research, doctors may be able to examine anyone’s DNA and figure out exactly what medication the person needs.

“This program is going to change the face of technology, Israel and eventually will be world changing,” said Jack Kadesh, regional director of the American Technion Society, who brought Lokey to Israel.

Lokey, for his part, was pretty sure he’d “leave a few million” in Israel, but had no idea he’d make the commitment he did until, well, he did it.

Technion will be working on “nanotechnology, biology, chemistry and my favorite, stem cell research. That’s going to mean more to humanity than the development of the polio vaccine. That was just one disease. But stem cells hit a whole bundle of things that are important,” said Lokey.

“If I keep going another 20 years until I’m 100, I’ll probably see another couple of diseases and ailments solved out of Haifa,” Technion’s home city.

Lokey may be one of the only people who can claim that giving away $25 million never gets old. He’s given away more than $200 million, by his count, to causes Jewish and otherwise, and his foundation at the Jewish Community Endowment Fund is locked in to give away at least that much more (“It’s irreversible,” he said with a laugh).

Among his other major gifts are more than $12 million to Israel’s Leo Baeck School, roughly $4 million to save Camp Swig from being sold off, $32 million for the University of Oregon and a roughly equal amount for Santa Clara University, even more than that for Stanford (his alma mater), and a $50 million donor advice fund, $15 million to establish a graduate business school at Mills College (as well as $4 million for a building) and around $11 million for the Peninsula Jewish Community Center. He also built the Torah center and religious school at Peninsula Temple Sholom, where he is a congregant, and had it named after the late Rabbi Gerald Raiskin and his wife, Helen.

“He’s been quite the strategic funder,” said Phyllis Cook, executive director of the JCEF, a part of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. “He does it the right way.”

Lokey, meanwhile, can’t wait to see what the scientists at Technion can do. And he also can’t wait to fund his next major project.

“I have 100 times more than I need or want,” he said.

“And I don’t give a darn if it’s a Jewish charity or not. What I care about is doing something that makes a lot of people better off. People are a valuable asset no matter where they are.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.