November 9, 2011

Cornell: $100M Gift for WCMC Came From Former Enron Director

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Former Enron director Robert Belfer was revealed on Wednesday to be the anonymous benefactor behind a $100 million donation to help finance a state-of-the-art research building at Weill Cornell Medical College. The project was first approved by the Board of Trustees in January 2010.

The newly-named “Belfer Research Building,” scheduled to open in 2014, will more than double the amount of research space for Weill faculty. At a total cost of $625 million, the 480,000-square-foot facility is the most expensive building project in Cornell’s history.

The Belfer family lost nearly $2 billion in the 2001 Enron collapse, according to The New York Times. Belfer is now chair of his family’s investment firm, Belfer Management, LLC, and has  served on Weill Cornell’s Board of Overseers since 1989.

The gift is the family’s largest to date, according to Dr. Antonio Gotto, dean of WCMC. Gotto said the donation may have been motivated by the fact that two of Belfer’s sisters died from cancer. Describing the family as “very generous,” Gotto said that the Belfers had previously supported Weill Cornell faculty chairships as well as gene therapy and oncology facilities.

“They like what they have seen, what their money is going toward, [and] what it’s accomplished,” Gotto said.

According to Gotto, the medical college’s lack of space at its Upper East Side campus has inhibited the potential of Cornell researchers by limiting the amount of space they have to conduct research.

“We’ve always been limited for space. Because of the relatively small amount of space in comparison with other institutions … our research has not been as well known,” Gotto said.

The new building is meant to promote translational, “bench-to-bedside” research between scientists and clinical physicians, Gotto said. This interaction will allow clinicians to give insights into diseases being researched and help speed up laboratory discoveries.

“This research is going to be integrated — it’s just across the street from the hospital where the clinicians are. This is all meant to facilitate interaction and collaboration,” Gotto said.

“It’s going to have a transformative effect on the medical college,” Gotto said.

At a ceremony in New York City on Wednesday, administrators, prominent Cornell benefactors and local political leaders touted the benefits the new facility would bring to the college and to medical research.

“The Belfer Research Building is an inspiring symbol of the Medical College’s ongoing commitment to fostering translational research,” Gotto said at the ceremony.  “It is a centerpiece of our tripartite mission to promote biomedical research, medical education and patient care both locally and around the world. I believe it will lead to major innovations in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of disease.”

According to Gotto, researchers at the facility will focus on a variety of pressing issues in human health, including cancer, childhood diseases, cardiovascular diseases, neurodegenerative diseases, infectious diseases and global health.

A former member of Enron’s board of directors, Belfer and his wife Renée are prominent philanthropists, having donated extensively to Weill Cornell in the past. The Belfers have also been major benefactors of cancer research, Harvard University and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other institutions.

Prof. Harel Weinstein, chair of the department of physiology and biophysics and director of the Institute for Computational Biomedicine, said that he and many other faculty members were excited about the new building.

“For any institution, especially an institution in an urban environment where space is an issue, the space for growth and for strengthening the [research] we have been successful in is enormously exciting,” Weinstein said.

Weinstein said he was confident the new facility would foster greater collaboration between scientists and clinicians. He said the new research space would have an “immediate impact on discoveries that go fast to the bedside.”

“It is the realization of expectations and dreams and hopes that people have had, especially successful people who are bursting at the seams” for more research opportunities, Weinstein said.

The building is the most prominent part of Weill Cornell’s Discoveries That Make a Difference capital campaign, a $1.3 billion fundraising effort of which more than $1.1 billion has already been raised. As part of that campaign, $250 million was donated to Weill Cornell in 2007 by Sanford Weill, chair of the Weill Cornell Board of Overseers.

Original Author: David Marten