Jacobs family to give La Jolla’s Salk Institute a historic $100 million gift for new science center

Irwin Jacobs, founding chairman of Qualcomm, and his wife, Joan, are pictured at their home in 2019.
(Sam Hodgson / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

The couple will donate $1 for every $2 raised by the biological science institute during a period that will end June 30.


Local philanthropists Irwin and Joan Jacobs, whose gifts have profoundly influenced health, science and the arts across San Diego County for decades, are giving the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla up to $100 million to help build a major science and technology center.

The gift is the largest in the institute’s history and represents the focal point of a $500 million fundraising campaign to expand the campus and deepen research in areas such as cancer, plant biology, aging and neurodegenerative diseases.

The undertaking is expected to help in the development of new drugs and therapeutics.

The institute was founded by Dr. Jonas Salk, who developed the first successful vaccine to fight polio in the 1950s. It specializes in basic science but has begun to do more to help translate its findings into therapeutic drugs and to work on practical ways to fight climate change, such as developing plants that absorb greater amounts of carbon dioxide.

As part of the change, the institute has been investing heavily in computational biology, a field in which the ever-growing ability to analyze massive data sets enabled scientists to quickly determine the genetic makeup of the various strains of the COVID-19 coronavirus.

The Jacobs gift is timely “because the faculty are working together on larger problems with deep implications,” said Salk President Fred “Rusty” Gage, who shook science in the 1990s when he discovered that adult humans can generate new brain cells.

His finding helped deepen scientific understanding of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

A rendering depicts the Center for Science and Technology that will be built at the Salk Institute  in La Jolla.
A rendering depicts the Center for Science and Technology that will be built at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla.
(Courtesy of Salk Institute)

The $100 million gift from the Jacobses represents the latest in a long list of donations.

Complete, specific figures aren’t available, but the couple have now donated upward of $700 million in San Diego County.

They made a splash in 2002 when they donated $100 million to help the San Diego Symphony, which was experiencing serious financial problems.

The following year, they gave UC San Diego $110 million to support its engineering school, helping make it one of the largest programs of its kind in the western United States. Their total contributions to the campus exceed $300 million and helped create Jacobs Medical Center, a key piece of UC San Diego Health.

The Jacobses also have a close relationship with the Salk Institute, where Irwin, 88, has served on the board of trustees since 2004. He became chairman two years later and helped the institute deal with financial challenges during his decade-long tenure. He’s still on the board.

“Joan and I continue to expand our family tradition of supporting effective nonprofit institutions with the potential to positively impact many lives,” Irwin Jacobs, who co-founded San Diego chipmaker Qualcomm, said in a statement.

“We focus on projects that have well-defined goals and good leadership, and Salk is exemplary in both ways,” he added. “We strongly advocate expanded philanthropy in support of basic science and engineering.”

Under the terms of the new donation, the Jacobses will donate $1 for every $2 raised by Salk during a period that will end June 30. The couple will donate up to $100 million.

The institute’s overall fundraising campaign needs to raise at least $250 million to build the Center for Science and Technology, a 100,000-square-foot building that will be along North Torrey Pines Road on the eastern edge of the Salk campus. Construction could begin late next fall.

An additional $250 million is being sought for a variety of scientific endeavors and to increase the number of active faculty members from 50 to 55.

The Salk Institute has issued conceptual drawings of the new science and technology building. But the project likely is to be watched closely by the architectural community to see if there are significant deviations from the overall look of the institute, whose seaside laboratory buildings and travertine marble courtyard are considered to be a masterpiece in design.

The setting sun lines up with the “River of Life” at the Salk Institute.
Twice a year, the setting sun lines up with the “River of Life” at the Salk Institute. The La Jolla campus is considered a design masterpiece.
(File / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Gage said the new center will be composed of teak, steel and concrete, just like the original buildings, and will feature lab space, offices and breezy meeting areas.

The center “builds on the legacy of Jonas Salk and will advance scientific discovery at Salk for decades to come,” Gage said.

Much is at stake, according to Salk plant biologist Joanne Chory, who is working on ways to get plants to sequester greater amounts of carbon.

“We’re facing big, complex problems because there are so many people living on Earth,” Chory said. “Science is going to have to solve them or humans will not inhabit the Earth anymore.” ◆