By Chris Emery, The San Diego Union-Tribune
December 27, 2016
Irwin Jacobs recently stepped down as chairman of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, replaced by Gateway computer founder Ted Waitt. During Jacobs’ decade-long leadership, the institute hired two presidents — first Dr. William Brody and then Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, who took on the role a year ago.
During Jacobs’ tenure, the institute also conducted a capital campaign that raised $330 million, exceeding its goal by $30 million.
Jacobs discussed those highlights and other Salk achievements during a recent interview with science writer Chris Emery at the institute. The San Diego Union-Tribune is republishing a slightly edited version of that Q&A, which first appeared in the magazine Inside Salk.
Irwin Jacobs earned his place in tech history as founding CEO of Qualcomm, leading it from an underdog San Diego company into a worldwide force in digital wireless communications technology and equipment. He retired from the Qualcomm board in 2012.
With his Qualcomm fortune, Jacobs and his wife, Joan, have financially supported a wide range of causes. They have donated hundreds of millions of dollars to institutions such as UC San Diego, the San Diego Symphony, the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, and the new UCSD Jacobs Medical Center.
The Salk Institute also has benefited from the couple’s philanthropy. They first became involved with the life sciences institute in 2004, helping to establish the Crick-Jacobs Center for Computational and Theoretical Biology, which uses computer modeling to study how the brain processes information.
The couple also established a challenge grant to encourage other donors to endow 20 chairs for senior scientists. For every $2 million that a person contributed toward an endowed chair at the institute, Joan and Irwin Jacobs added $1 million to achieve the $3 million funding level required to fully endow a chair for a Salk senior scientist. All 20 such positions have been established.
And they launched Salk’s Innovation Grants Program, which supports riskier but potentially very rewarding research projects that might otherwise not receive funding.
Road to the Salk Institute
Q: You had a long and successful career in academia and later in industry at Linkabit and Qualcomm. Some people would have kicked their feet up in retirement on a beach somewhere. Why have you and Joan devoted so much of your time and resources to service and philanthropy?
A: I enjoyed a very fulfilling academic experience at MIT and UC San Diego, followed by a most rewarding business career, co-founding and leading Linkabit in 1969 and Qualcomm in 1985. During that period, I was fortunate to work with very good people on exciting projects, translating new ideas into useful products. I have always enjoyed learning about new areas, particularly in engineering and science.
When I retired, Joan and I decided to continue family tradition and focus on using our time and resources to support interesting nonprofit institutions. We choose areas that have the potential to impact many, including research, education from K-12 to university, social and community needs, and cultural activities. We enjoy working with projects that have well-defined goals and good leadership.
Q: You have been involved in many philanthropic endeavors. What attracted you to Salk?
A: The presence of the Salk Institute in La Jolla was one important factor in our decision to move here from Boston in 1966. Then, following retirement from Qualcomm, I became interested in learning more about biology and Salk, of course, was very attractive for its world-renowned research program.
But I think what convinced me to later become involved was a lunch I had at the Salk in March 2003. Francis Crick, Sidney Brenner, Rusty Gage, Chuck Stevens and Terry Sejnowski were there, and the discussion was fascinating. I found that neuroscience had connections back to my work in information theory and communications which could be pursued.
Q: Is there anything from your tenure as chairman of the Salk’s board that you are particularly proud of?
A: A lot of exciting things happened during my tenure as chair. Perhaps foremost, we selected two new presidents for the institute. That was a bit of a challenge, and I ended up being happy with the outcome in both cases.
For the first, I was given a notebook full of names and did a lot of research. I came across Bill Brody‘s name and thought he’d be ideal if we could lure him away from Johns Hopkins. Luckily, that all worked out and he served six years as a very successful president at the Salk.
When Bill retired, we began a broad search. But when we learned that Elizabeth Blackburn would consider such a step in her career, we focused on attracting her to Salk. I am very pleased that we succeeded.
Another significant event occurred early in my time as chair, and that involved guiding Salk into becoming one of the founding members of the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, which continues to play a significant impact on science on the Torrey Pines Mesa.
Q: Are there particular areas of Salk research or projects that you’ve found most intriguing?
A: All of the areas of research are progressing well, often yielding surprising results. Neuroscience, because of its breadth, because it does have a connection to information theory, and because of increasing progress in understanding the brain at many levels, is perhaps most intriguing.
Brain research also requires substantial engineering effort to be able to sense what is happening in the brain. Indeed, the National Academy of Engineering chose reverse engineering of the brain as one of its “Grand Challenges.”
Of course, the allure of the Salk is its broad and innovative approach to science. We’ve made great progress in learning the biology of many cancers, leading to personalized treatments based on sequencing an individual’s tumors. From a scientific and even an artistic point of view, it’s exciting to see the work in biophotonics, allowing us to visualize life at a level previously impossible.
Q: Looking around your house, clearly you and Joan have a love of art. Is there something that art and science share that draws you to both?
A: We enjoy being surprised by new ideas and forms. Artists and scientists are interested in innovative outlooks on our world and are willing to experiment and take risks — and they must have persistence. We are often intrigued by the simplicity of the end results masking the many approaches explored along the way.
La Jolla’s appeal
Q: I noticed your house is very modern. What was your first reaction when you saw the architecture of the Salk?
A: During a trip to San Diego in 1965, Joan and I had a chance to explore the region and discovered the Salk Institute. I still remember it as a “wow” moment. Although the architecture first appeared brutal, it appealed very much to our personal aesthetic. It is so contemporary, so well sited and so beautifully thought through and functional.
When we considered moving to La Jolla, the Salk Institute and the opportunity to teach and help form a brand new university became deciding factors. However, it took one additional incident to sway our decision. It’s funny how small things do change the course of life.
When I was first offered the job at UC San Diego, I turned it down, with family, friends and career all on the East Coast. But for the next two days, we questioned our decision.
Returning home the second day, soaked from a major rainstorm, Joan read me a description of a contemporary home that was for sale. I said, “Let’s go see it tomorrow.” She said, “There’s only one problem, it’s in La Jolla.” And so here we are.
Q: Has the unexpected played out in other ways in your life?
A: Entering a business career provides another example. When we moved to San Diego, I didn’t really plan on going into business. However, I had co-authored a textbook on digital communications at MIT. As a result, I received many more requests for consulting from companies in California than I could handle.
I mentioned this to two faculty friends at UCLA and they suggested we should start a company to share the consulting. And that’s how Linkabit, my first company, began.
It began to grow, so I took a one-year leave from UC San Diego to get it organized, found the technology business great fun, and in 1972 became a dropout from academia. The digital communication theory that I had been teaching proved very useful in business, and Linkabit was a great success. I sold it in 1980 and remained (with it) until 1985.
Six persons who had worked with me at Linkabit suggested starting another company. Although we did not have any products in mind when starting, the unexpected occurred again and Qualcomm became another success driven by innovative products.
Union-Tribune staff writer Bradley J. Fikes contributed to this article.