March 25, 2015

Personal Toll of Dyslexia, Alzheimer’s Spurs $50-Million Gift to USC

Courtesy of the Stevens family
Mary and Mark Stevens
Silicon Valley venture capitalist Mark Stevens and his wife, Mary, have donated $50 million to endow the University of Southern California’s Neuroimaging and Informatics Institute, which will be named for them.

The gift, announced today, is one in a long line of science-related donations that have captured the hearts and dollars of major philanthropists in the last year.

"Mary and I have a burgeoning interest in neuroscience," Mr. Stevens said. "It’s one of the last great frontiers in medicine, and the brain is kind of the last big complex area of research."

Mr. Stevens added, "My father has Alzheimer’s and one of our sons is dyslexic, so this is also personal for us."

The Stevenses are longtime supporters of USC. They gave $22 million to the university’s Viterbi School of Engineering in 2004, and other donations over the years. Mr. Stevens, an alumnus, has also served on the university’s Board of Trustees since 2001 and on other university committees over the years.

Long Relationship

The latest gift came about through the long friendship between Mr. Stevens and the president of USC, C.L. Max Nikias. The two men first met in 1994 when Mr. Nikias, then a USC professor looking to start an institute on digital media and the future of the Internet, contacted Mr. Stevens for help getting seed money from Silicon Valley companies.

Their shared background in engineering — Mr. Stevens earned, among other degrees, a bachelor’s in electrical engineering from USC in 1981 — helped forge a long and trusting relationship.

During a casual conversation last summer, Mr. Nikias told Mr. Stevens how excited he was about the institute, which he had lured away from UCLA in 2013.

"I was just telling him how enthusiastic I was about the work of the institute, and it resonated with him," said Mr. Nikias.

Mr. Stevens said he and his wife wanted their next big gift to go toward medical science, so he asked to learn more about the project. Mr. Nikias organized a briefing in November with Arthur Toga and Paul Thompson, who lead the institute.

"Mark understood very well the technology and the sciences behind this, so it was not a hard sale for me," said Mr. Nikias.

It also didn’t hurt that Mr. Tonga and Mr. Thompson had separately just won grants from the National Institutes of Health for their work.

Big Data

In addition to their shared interest in brain science, Mr. Stevens and Mr. Nikias were intrigued by how scientists at the institute were extracting and using "big data" in their neuroimaging work.

"As engineers, this appealed to his background and mine," said Mr. Nikias.

Mr. Stevens said he hopes the gift will help scientists better understand brain function and how it relates to other parts of the body in enough detail that diseases such as Alzheimer’s and common neurological conditions like learning disabilities can be detected and addressed at an early age.

"Our understanding of the brain right now is very coarse. It’s like looking at the earth from far away and seeing only the outlines, when what you really want to be able to see are the details," he said.