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Sitting down with Sandy Weill: Brain disease, Sonoma Valley Hospital and living in the Valley

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Former Citigroup CEO Sanford Weill last week announced his latest major philanthropic endeavor: the billionaire Sonoma resident wants to move the needle on neuroscience, particularly as it relates to aging.

“If we don’t figure out how to stop cognitive diseases from progressing, the country is going to go broke because people are going to live longer and we’re all going to get these diseases eventually,” Weill, 86, told the Index-Tribune this week. He said he and his wife of 64 years, Joan, “have watched a lot of progress made in fighting cancer and cardiovascular disease but not as much work being done in the cognitive sciences.”

The Weills believe that the greatest advances in neuroscience will take place in the 2020s. And Sandy Weill has a vested interest in those advances, having lost his mother to Alzheimer’s and his father to depression.

He put his money where his mouth is last week, announcing a unique new public-private collaboration between the Weill Family Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy to apply artificial intelligence capabilities to advance transformative scientific opportunities in biomedical and public health research.

Weill hopes that the collaboration will improve the diagnosis and treatment of brain diseases and neurological disorders.

“Artificial Intelligence has the power to literally change the world we live in by tackling some of the biggest problems facing humanity — from improving our environment, to advancing our understanding of the cosmos; from increasing cybersecurity to improving crop production,” said Dept. of Energy Secretary Rick Perry in last week’s announcement.

Weill sat down with the Index-Tribune on Sept. 3 to discuss his hopes for the new collaboration, his support for Sonoma Valley Hospital and how he and Joan ended up living 10 minutes from the Plaza.

The neuroscience project was born 18 months ago after a meeting between Weill, Secretary Perry, UCSF neurosurgery chief Geoff Manley, and other UCSF officials.

“They were talking about how Manley could use a Department of Energy national lab computer to analyze data and results in an hour that otherwise would take a week,” said Weill. “When they can get the most out of information in the shortest possible time, they can understand the progression of disease in real time.”

Most people know someone who could be affected by brain science, said Weill.

“When you think about who’s affected by brain science – we are talking about veterans who have depression and PTSD; athletes with concussion; neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, ALS and Parkinson’s,” said Weill.

So why partner with the Department of Energy?

The Department of Energy (DOE) staffs 17 national labs, including the three biggest: Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley in the Bay Area and Argonne National Laboratories in Illinois. Its labs currently have two of the five fastest computers in the world. Experts agree that the country that develops quantum computing is likely to lead the world in technology. According to Weill, Perry expects the DOE to develop three new computers by 2020 that will be 50 times faster than anything that exists today.

So the DOE is providing the computers and engineers and the Weills’ foundation will help fund the researchers and clinicians working on brain diseases, particularly in the areas where very little progress has been made. Weill is hoping that the collaboration will be the push needed to get the ball rolling toward real breakthroughs.

“We have some of the best scientists in the neuroscience world right here in the Bay Area, between UCSF and UC Berkeley,” said Weill. “This new ‘neuro hub’ will hopefully evolve into a great collection of scientists who like collaborating with each other.”

Weill said that the bi-partisan program is being extended over a three-year-period so that it will last through the next election cycle. While he has never before worked with the government on a project of this kind, he stressed that he’s a big believer in public and private collaborations. He hopes that companies like Google, Microsoft and Amazon may join the collaboration, as well, a development he said he would welcome.

Weill’s focus on UCSF as a key partner in the project is no accident: the Weills made a $185 million gift to UCSF about three years ago to fund research in the neurosciences.

He also played a key role in UCSF’s recent affiliation with Sonoma Valley Hospital, which has enjoyed longtime support from the Weills.

“I think it’s phenomenal for the Valley because UCSF is one of the top hospitals in the country,” he said, adding that UCSF has been mentoring SVH on how to navigate as a small hospital – and on the areas that make the most sense for it to expand and contract.

The Weills also donated $12 million to build Weill Hall, which opened as part of the Green Music Center in Rohnert Park in 2012. More important than just writing a check, he says, was the time they devoted, and the strong board of directors and partners like MasterCard and Carnegie Hall that the Weills attracted to the Green Music Center project at Sonoma State University.

Weill has also served as chairman of the National Academy Foundation (NAF) upon which Sonoma Valley High School’s current engineering academy is based. Weill is also in investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which publishes the Index-Tribune and other local publications.

While they still have other houses elsewhere, the Weills’ primary residence is now Sonoma.

A decade ago, a business acquaintance told Weill that he was going to retire to Sonoma. Sandy and Joan had enjoyed trips and weddings in the North Bay over the years, and they were intrigued.

In 2010, local Sothebys agents Carol Sebastiani and Ginger Martin showed the Weills 13 locations – 12 in Napa and one in Sonoma. The last stop, at the end of an exhausting weekend, was their current 362-acre spread high on Sonoma Mountain.

He said the couple love Sonoma, as well as the combination of privacy and proximity to good restaurants and good friends.

“But we managed to land ourselves in the one place in the United States where the tax rate is higher than New York,” Weill laughed.

Weill still has several balls in the air with other philanthropic projects on both coasts, winemaking and some vineyard investments – but his keen focus these days is on how to enable people to live longer.

When asked what Weill would consider as success 10 years out, he laughed and said, “The biggest success would be for me to be alive to see where it is 10 years down the road.”

Contact Lorna at lorna.sheridan@sonomanews.com.

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