James Stowers Jr built a multibillion dollar business, survived cancer and established a world-class medical research facility. He explains to Marc Smith why he decided to give back something more valuable than money.
James Stowers Jr (pictured) is not your average philanthropist. Many begin a philanthropic journey because illness or tragedy has affected their family, they have a vision to make a real difference to society or use their family business/family office to provide a dedicated revenue stream to a charity of their choice.
Very few tick all these boxes to such an extent that they create a world-class research facility whose discoveries appear regularly in the leading peer-reviewed journals in the field. Fewer still hand over 44% of the multibillion dollar company they built up to a charitable foundation. And even fewer still who, along with their wife and daughter, survive cancer.
Yet it is all these differentiators that make James Stowers Jr unique and his achievements so special. While still chairman of mutual fund business American Century Investments, the company he founded in 1958, Stowers Jr made an initial donation of $50 million in 1994 to start the Stowers Institute. At the time, this was one of the largest single philanthropic acts ever made by an individual.
But he's not about to start preaching to his peers: "I'm not one to stand on a soapbox and tell people what they should or shouldn't do with their money. Philanthropy is a very personal thing. In my case, success in business resulted in wealth beyond my wildest dreams. After both my wife and I were diagnosed with cancer, we felt an obligation to give back something more valuable than money to the millions of people who made our success possible and we think that giving back through science is the best way we can do it," Stowers Jr exclusively tells Campden FO.
It took six years to get the Stowers Institute up and running, but Stowers Jr says they spent a tremendous amount of time determining exactly what they wanted to be. "I had no set timeframes in mind. It was never about speed and always about creating the very best," he says.
To help him decide, Stowers Jr formed an advisory board that was tasked with appraising various approaches used by some of the world's most prestigious research institutions and biotechnology companies. The most important discussion was around the research focus: "There were many passionate discussions during advisory board meetings as we considered the question of whether we should engage in basic research, or research with direct commercial or clinical applications," explains Stowers Jr.
They eventually reached a decision by consensus to build a facility that conducts basic yet innovative research on the genes and proteins that control fundamental processes in living cells. The ultimate objective remains to unlock the mysteries of diseases such as cancer, diabetes and dementia, and find keys to their causes, treatment and prevention.
It is something very dear to the heart of the Stowers family. "My wife Virginia and I are both cancer survivors and we know first hand the fear and loneliness that come with the diagnosis of a life-threatening disease," says Stowers Jr.
"It was natural to think about how we might offer help and hope to those facing cancer and other diseases. Rather than simply giving money to an existing organisation, we decided to dedicate our resources to creating the most innovative and effective medical research institute in the world."
Stowers Jr says he created the Institute in the same way he created his business. "We committed ourselves to being the very best. To attract the best scientists to work with us, we built a state-of-the-art facility and gave them the most cutting-edge technologies available to work with."
Stowers Jr also wanted to create a legacy that would be self-sustaining and not reliant on grants from government or private sources. To do this he endowed the Institute with gifts totalling $2 billion, including a large cash reserve and a substantial ownership of American Century Investments.
In addition, a share programme, called Hope Shares – a nod to the founder's desire that the Institute becomes synonymous with hope – was created to help grow the endowment in the long term. Prospective donors give a minimum of $1000 that establishes an account and then receive an annual statement that details how the value of the gift has grown with the Institute's endowment in the previous year.
Coupled with additional financial support from other scientific grant-funding organisations, the Institute's funding looks secure for the foreseeable future. "Our scientists have the advantage of dedicating all of their efforts to achieving scientific breakthroughs rather than applying for grants and other funding," confirms Stowers Jr.
The ownership of the family business is also a symbiotic relationship, as Stowers Jr, who is co-founder and co-chairman of the board of the Institute and founder of American Century Investments, freely admits. "We think it gives us an advantage in the marketplace. These days, clients of asset management firms are not only interested in strong investment performance; they are looking past the numbers to examine the character of the firms with whom they associate. The relationship with the Institute is very unique in our industry and something that helps American Century stand out from the pack.
"Also, it has given our company a strong sense of purpose. When I talk to American Century Investments leaders and employees, it's clear that the unique relationship between the two entities is a source of great pride. In addition to helping our clients succeed, employees appreciate the fact that the success of the company helps fund research into the causes, treatment and prevention of gene-based diseases. The connection has created a very motivated and inspired workforce."
Further family involvement is on the agenda as Stowers Jr's son, Jim Stowers III, is on the board of Stowers Resource Management, a supporting organisation to the Institute. However, the main focus is on their future health, not their wallets. "The family has been extremely supportive of what we are attempting to accomplish. My children, their children and many future generations of Stowerses, as well as all of mankind, stand to benefit from the Institute's research," says Stowers Jr.
As the Institute approaches the 10-year anniversary of the arrival of the first scientific research teams, the founder says he is extremely pleased with the progress they are making. He also says he would not have done anything differently with hindsight, so what advice does he have for other philanthropists?
"First you have to admit to yourself, and convince others, that you don't have all the answers. Surround yourself with the very best people, people who know more than you do. I firmly believe in the extraordinary power of teamwork and that decisions made as a team are far more effective than those made by any one individual. By setting the bar incredibly high and building the best facilities and laboratories, we've succeeded in attracting some of the most talented scientists in the world to the midwestern part of the United States – something people said couldn't be done."
Today, the Institute accommodates 24 independent research programmes and employs more than 500 staff who have published over 450 papers and won $50 million in competitive awards.
"The early success is very gratifying. If you set out to do something, be determined to do your best or don't do it at all," concludes Stowers Jr.