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