News and analysis
February 09, 2014

Dallas Billionaire Sees Science as Crucial to Solving Today’s Social Problems

David Woo/The Dallas Morning News

Lyda Hill has vowed to give away her fortune in her lifetime.

To Lyda Hill, science is the solution to just about everything.

“I really believe that whether we’re talking about hunger, poverty, cancer, you name it, science is where we’ll find the answers,” she says.

Since she came into her inheritance five years ago from the estate of her grandfather, the oil tycoon H.L. Hunt, Ms. Hill has been giving hundreds of millions of dollars to charities to tackle social problems through science.

Last year alone, she committed $63.2-million to such causes, putting her at No. 35 on the Philanthropy 50, The Chronicle’s annual list of America’s most generous donors.

And there’s much more money on its way to charities. The 71-year-old has said she plans to give all of her wealth away during her lifetime.

It’s unclear exactly how much that is—Ms. Hill won’t say—but she agreed to sign the Giving Pledge in 2011, an effort by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett that has so far focused on recruiting billionaires.

She also just hired the first-ever president for her foundation, which holds $10-million in assets.

Though Ms. Hill does most of her giving personally rather than through her foundation, the recruitment of a professional to run her fund likely signals that she plans to increase her philanthropy soon.

Ms. Hill says she wants to focus on “things that are going to make a big difference to a lot of people for a long time.”

Fighting Cancer

Chief among her 2013 gifts was one that exemplifies her ambition: A $50-million pledge to the Moon Shots Program at University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. Ms. Hill’s five-year commitment is the largest so far to the interdisciplinary effort to drastically reduce cancer rates by fighting eight forms of the disease.

The research program, named after President Kennedy’s 1961 pledge to put a man on the moon, is expected to cost $3-billion in its first 10 years.

Last year, Ms. Hill also supported ocean conservancy and food-safety advocacy at the Pew Charitable Trusts; sustainable fisheries and habitat-restoration projects at the Nature Conservancy; and efforts by the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and the Center for Brain Health to help military veterans coping with trauma-induced mental-health issues.

Sally O’Brien, senior vice president for philanthropic partnerships at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says she’s been impressed with how Ms. Hill’s approach to philanthropy has been both daring and scientifically rigorous.

“She is fearless when it comes to taking on big problems with us,” says Ms. O’Brien. “But she does so only after calculating whether the investment is worth the risk.”

Competitive Streak

Ms. Hill, the founder of a successful travel agency in Dallas and of a venture-capital firm that fosters biomedical innovations, has long been a fixture in the city’s philanthropy community and says she can’t recall a time when she wasn’t volunteering or raising money for charity.

Her giving drew national attention in 2011 with a $20-million gift to the Hockaday School, a private school for girls in Dallas that she graduated from in 1960. The donation will pay for new classrooms and research space for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, as well as faculty positions.

The gift revealed her competitive streak. She intended to give $10-million—until she got an email from school officials referring to her gift as the third largest that Hockaday had ever received.

“I wrote back asking, 'How big were one and two?’” recalls Ms. Hill.

She announced her decision to double her gift at a gathering of school officials and teachers, who were stunned by the news.

“I’m competitive. I can’t help it. That’s the way I’ve always been,” she says. “But in this case, it wasn’t a competition to beat people but to help people and to see how big of a help I can be.”

Besides supporting the school and science education, Ms. Hill says she wanted to set an example to encourage more women to give, especially to causes they care most about.

Ms. Hill—the only living woman donor on the Philanthropy 50 who did not give as part of a couple—says she’d like to see more women take a bigger role in directing their family’s donations.

“There are lots of women who could give, but the husband wants to support his alma mater,” she says. “Well I say, 'Get a life, lady!’”

Gems and Minerals

She traces her passion for science and nature to the rocks she loved to collect as a child. She never lost her fascination with them, and in recent years she has become one of the world’s foremost collectors of gems and minerals.

Some of her treasures are on glittering display in her office. A much larger collection is on loan to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, in the Lyda Hill Gems and Minerals Hall.

From her office on the 46th floor of the Trammell Crow Center in Dallas’s burgeoning arts district, Ms. Hill can look down on the Perot museum, which she helped create.

Opened in December 2012, the museum is named for the Texas businessman and former presidential candidate Ross Perot and his wife, Margot, a former teacher, who gave $50-million to the project. Ms. Hill persuaded her family members to donate $10-million and chipped in $15-million of her own.

On a typical day, buses ferrying schoolchildren arrive at the Perot from every part of Dallas. “Thirty-one buses is the most I can see from here,” Ms. Hill reports, peering down from her office.

What the students encounter once they enter is anything but the dusty dioramas and static exhibits of an old-school museum. The Perot is largely interactive, Ms. Hill says, giving young people the opportunity to act like scientists.

“This museum is going to create generations of young scientists,” she says. “The kids who come here fall in love with science, but they also see that there are career paths: You can have a job playing with rocks.”

Ms. Hill’s hands-on approach to giving has been in evidence since the days when the museum was only a vision, says Carolyn Perot Rathjen, chair of the museum’s Board of Directors.

“Lyda was one of the museum’s earliest supporters and helped to secure the site more than a decade ago, and she continues to make herself available anytime we need her.”

Moon Shots

Ms. Hill’s $50-million pledge last year to the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Moon Shots program gave a boost to a program that uses an interdisciplinary approach in which teams of researchers and doctors work to develop improved cancer-detection tools and new personalized therapies.

The Moon Shots experts will initially focus on eight cancers, including melanoma, lung cancer, and the deadliest forms of breast and ovarian cancer. But the ultimate goal is to “break cancer’s code,” Ms. Hill says.

The all-hands-on-deck strategy appealed to her, but the project also earned her support for more personal reasons. Her family suffers from abnormally high rates of cancer, and Ms. Hill was diagnosed with breast cancer when she was 37.

“The day after I had a mastectomy, the doctor came in and told me that he had good news about survival rates,” Ms. Hill says. “He said, 'You have a 50-percent chance of surviving five years.’ I was a math major; I knew what that meant.”

Biomedical Research

To raise the estimated $3-billion the Moon Shot Program will need in its first decade, it will rely on a combination of private philanthropy, competitive research grants, and the commercialization of new discoveries—something else Ms. Hill is passionate about.

In 2011, she started Remeditex Ventures, a venture-capital fund that invests in promising ideas in biomedical research and helps scientists bring their products to market. Since starting Remeditex, Ms. Hill estimates that she’s invested in some 200 start-up companies employing more than 350 people.

“Those are measures of success to me,” says Ms. Hill. “Now, it doesn’t mean that it’s all going to work, but hopefully some of these companies are going to come up with something good.”

As she watches the progress of her gift at M.D. Anderson, she also expresses deep interest in how it is getting results, says Ronald DePinho, the cancer center’s president.

Dr. DePinho meets regularly with Ms. Hill to talk about the project, which includes not just cancer research but also data analytics and policy prescriptions.

“Lyda has an incredible intellect and a curiosity that drives her towards trying to understand the opportunities before us to improve the human condition,” he says. “She can look at a complex problem like cancer and figure out how she can best move the needle on the disease.”

Foundation President

Recently, Ms. Hill decided that sharing her wealth is too big an enterprise for her alone. Last month, Nicole Small joined Ms. Hill as president of her foundation.

Says Ms. Hill: “My background as a volunteer and a fundraiser and a business woman has taken me this far, but I feel like I’ve kind of used up my knowledge.

“That’s where Nicole comes in. She’s going to bring some order and some discipline to this place.”

Ms. Hill encountered her new president at the Perot Museum, which Ms. Small was hired to help create after conducting a study for the consultants Mc­Kinsey & Company about how to consolidate three Dallas museums.

The Perot “opened a month early, was fully paid for, and relied on no government funds,” says Ms. Hill. “That was Nicole’s doing.”

For her part, Ms. Small says that she’s excited about embarking on a new adventure. While the foundation’s focus on science and environmental protection won’t change, Ms. Small hopes to help Ms. Hill become more strategic in her philanthropy.

“Lyda’s got the possibility to have a big impact,” she says.