Timothy Harding/shutterstock

Timothy Harding/shutterstock

George Yancopoulos is the co-founder, president and chief scientific officer of Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the holder of more than 100 patents, and an advocate for increased federal funding for science research. Recently dubbed “the man who could cure cancer,” he has the distinction of being the first pharmaceutical research chief to become a billionaire.

A committed philanthropist, Yancopoulos has been a donor to Harvard Medical School, Boston Children’s Hospital Trust, the Hellenic Initiative and the Prostate Cancer Foundation. He’s also a big supporter of his alma mater, Columbia University’s Columbia College, providing gifts for financial aid, athletics, campus revitalization and scientific advancements. He is a member of the school’s Irving Medical Center’s Precision Medicine Council and vice-chair of its Board of Advisors. In 2013, he established the Yancopoulos Family Science Fellowship for Columbia College students.

Yancopoulos recently announced a $10 million commitment to create a new institute at Columbia College focused on promoting “beginner’s mind,” the Buddhist concept of avoiding stereotypes or preconceived ideas. Arguing that humanity has become constrained by labels, Yancopoulos said, “We need to have a beginner’s mind whenever we meet others, regardless of race, sex, color or beliefs.”

The announcement comes as other higher ed donors have ramped up support for concepts and research areas that have received limited public and private funding. Examples include the Bedari Foundation’s $20 million gift to UCLA to study the science of kindness, T. Denny Sanford’s $100 million gift to UC San Diego to study compassion, Susan and Henry Samueli’s controversial $200 million gift to UC Irvine for a new integrative medicine program, and a $17 million commitment from a group of donors to start the Center for Psychedelic and Consciousness Research at Johns Hopkins Medicine.

By arguing that humanity needs “to have a beginner’s mind when we try to scientifically address existential threats like climate change and our healthcare problems,” Yancopoulos joins an ever-growing class of mega-donors seeking to mold key institutions and issue areas in accordance with their beliefs.

A Vocal Advocate for Science Research

Born in 1959, Yancopoulos spent his early childhood in Woodside, New York. He graduated as valedictorian from Columbia College and the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons as an M.D./Ph.D candidate. With Leonard Schleifer, he co-founded Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, a biotech company that has developed blockbuster FDA-approved medicines for diseases such as cancer and asthma. Regeneron posted close to $6 billion in revenues in 2017.

In a Forbes profile of “Pharma’s First Billionaire R&D Chief,” Matthew Herper noted that instead of acting as a portfolio manager, Yancopoulos is deeply involved in Regeneron’s drug discovery and is a principal inventor on all the technology patents that underlie Regeneron’s drugs. In this sense, Yancopoulos is “a bit of a throwback to his role model” P. Roy Vagelos, the 90-year-old former Merck executive, fellow Greek-American, prodigious philanthropist, and current Regeneron chairman.

About four years ago, Regeneron replaced Intel as the top sponsor for the Science Talent Search prize, the nation’s most prestigious science and math competition for high school seniors, with a 10-year, $100 million commitment. Commenting on the rebranded Regeneron Science Talent Search, Yancopoulos said, “I don’t want the best minds in this country to be hedge fund managers. I want them to be scientists and engineers.”

In 2017, Yancopoulos, who also leads Regeneron’s STEM education and mentorship programs, railed against proposed cuts to federal science budgets, telling the Chicago Tribune, “We should only be working on two things: health and the freaking environment. The last thing we need is another freaking browser and app—those things are eroding our national intellect.”

And a few months later, when asked how he’d transform the U.S. healthcare industry if he could wave a magic wand, Yancopoulos said he’d ensure that Americans view scientists the way they value athletes and movie stars. Society, he said, needs to attract “the rare geniuses” with appropriate recognition and reward.  

Hurdles to Implementation

At first glance, Yancopoulos’ $10 million gift earmarked for “beginner’s mind” seems slightly off-script, given his experience, philanthropic track record and previous calls for more investment in science research. With federal funding on the chopping block, why not just cut a $10 million check for more science research?

For an answer, let’s step back in time to 2015. That was when Columbia College Dean James Valentini, in an interview with the Columbia Spectator, articulated his goal of instilling a “beginner’s mind” philosophy across the school. “Beginner’s mind is about… not being constrained in your thinking by assumptions you might have, or preconceptions you might have, or prejudices you might have,” he said. “Beginner’s mind is approaching the world in the way that young children do.”

At the time, Valentini floated the idea of incorporating “beginner’s mind” into the college’s Core Curriculum. Roosevelt Montás, the director of Columbia’s Center for the Core Curriculum, pushed back on this idea, arguing that “the curriculum is the faculty’s and not a tool for any ideological messaging from the administration or from anybody else, no matter how good the ideological messaging is.”

In a similar vein, Vivek Ramakrishnan, Columbia College Student Council’s VP for policy, said, “I think it’s kind of difficult to implement the idea because it’s kind of a cultural thing. It’s about a mindset—it’s about how you approach day-to-day interactions. It’s not a programmatic thing.”

“I’m Most Concerned About the Big Picture”

In 2016, Yancopoulos’ daughter Nia graduated Columbia College. With Yancopoulos in the audience, Valentini extolled the virtues of “beginner’s mind” during his address, calling it “the most important thinking in science; it is what drives scientific curiosity.” The speech struck a nerve with Yancopoulos.

Last November, Columbia awarded Yancopoulos its Alexander Hamilton medal for his distinguished service to the college. Earlier that day, he had decided on the $10 million commitment while reflecting upon universities’ need to do more in the fight against divisive labels. Yancopoulos announced his gift during his acceptance speech that evening. (The gift was a surprise to everyone—Yancopoulos did not notify administrators prior to his announcement.)

“Listening to the dean,” Yancopoulos said, “it became so clear to me that beginner’s mind defines both the key to uniting humanity to do great things as well as the key to using science to address the most devastating threats to humanity from disease to climate change.” Yancopoulos criticized the increased focus on categories of race and sex in the national conversation, including at universities, and argued that “society’s current over-scrutiny of ideas such as white privilege is counterproductive to uniting humanity around real threats.” He also condemned universities for allowing anti-Semitic speakers on campus.

A “stunned and gratified” Valentini told the Spectator that although he did not know what next steps would be taken with the gift, he would include all undergraduate schools, not just Columbia College, in discussions concerning the new institute. When pressed on specifics of the commitment, such as whether he believed the money should be dedicated to endowing faculty chairs or supporting broader initiatives, Yancopoulos said, “I’m most concerned about the big picture. What I am concerned about is taking the best and the brightest minds and teaching them to think outside the box.”

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