Fred Eshelman, a wildly successful pharmaceutical entrepreneur, has placed an enormous bet on his alma mater – $100 million to the UNC-Chapel Hill pharmacy school that already bears his name.
It is the largest gift from an individual in the university’s history and the biggest ever to a pharmacy school in the United States. It also comes on top of $38 million in previous donations by Eshelman to the school, where he earned his undergraduate degree in 1972.
University leaders were jubilant at a Wednesday afternoon announcement, under a tent filled with dignitaries, faculty and supporters.
UNC-CH Chancellor Carol Folt said the gift would go not to bricks and mortar, but to researchers and innovation.
“There could be nothing more exciting to a chancellor than to think that we have the resources here to take the talent of these people and really put it to use,” Folt said. “I think it’s fantastic for our state, too, because one of the things we most want to do is see them take this kind of discovery and creativity they have and see it drive all the way out into the community.”
The sum is larger than the entire budgets of the five smallest universities in the UNC system. It will build on the momentum the pharmacy school has had, in part, because of Eshelman’s past philanthropy, which included $20 million in 2003 and $9 million in 2008 for cancer-related research.
The school is ranked second nationally among pharmacy schools in U.S. News & World Report’s 2013 best graduate schools list, begging the question how much higher it can climb with Eshelman’s new gift. UNC President Tom Ross said he had a message for the University of California, San Francisco’s top-ranked doctor of pharmacy program: “They better watch out.”
The money will be used for potentially high-reward research that could spur economic development and jobs in North Carolina. It will create a center within the school named the Eshelman Institute for Innovation.
“We’re setting up this institute where we really hope to supercharge the ability of faculty and graduate students and others to really get a leg up on their research ideas, get some form around them, push them forward with certain milestones,” Eshelman said, “and hopefully get to the point where we can spin them out or commercialize them.”
The school already has a track record for such work. In the past decade, Folt said, the school has produced more than 15 spinoff companies and 131 patents.
The school was founded in 1897 and trained thousands of pharmacists for North Carolina drugstores. But the mortar and pestle at the center of the Old Well-shaped cake at Wednesday’s reception was a symbol of the school’s past. The school now works on solving the most complex diseases.
“We must accelerate at the point of the idea generation, and we must accelerate all the way through to its natural fruition, which might result in a cure for cancer, a cure for AIDS,” pharmacy Dean Bob Blouin said.
‘Poised to compete’
Gov. Pat McCrory said the Eshelman gift could help North Carolina aim to be the third vertex of a national “research triangle,” with the other corners being Silicon Valley in California and the Northeast corridor of Boston and New York.
“We are poised to compete nationally and internationally,” he said.
The school enrolls 650 students in its professional degree program and 100 students in its graduate program, while employing about 100 full-time faculty. It collaborates with the university’s medical school and cancer center.
Folt said Eshelman embodies what the school expects of its graduates.
“He’s an innovator, and he’s deeply dedicated to his community,” she said. “He wants to find solutions to great problems, ways to create jobs. He wants to save lives.”
Eshelman founded the Wilmington-based Pharmaceutical Product Development, or PPD, a 13,000-employee firm that performs contract research for pharmaceutical companies. He was later the founding chairman of Furiex Pharmaceuticals, a drug development company focused on treatments for gastroenterology disorders. In July, the company was acquired by Actavis plc in an all-cash transaction valued at about $1.1 billion.
‘He pushed us’
As a member of the UNC system’s Board of Governors, he helped lead an initiative to create a new strategic plan to make the UNC system more efficient, to lift the degree attainment rate and to increase high-impact research.
Ross said the experience was intense and joked that he and Eshelman almost came to blows. “He pushed us, and I mean hard,” Ross said. “He demanded that we produce and then produce some more. He also encouraged us and advised us and he taught us.”
But Eshelman quit the board this past summer, a year before his term was complete.
In a resignation letter, he expressed his frustration with the lack of state support for public universities, which have been hit by repeated budget cuts from the legislature in recent years.
In an earlier interview with The News & Observer, he was more plainspoken, saying that the legislature had taken the university’s savings from efficiency moves and hadn’t come through with funding for the strategic plan.
Eshelman has in the past been a prolific donor to conservative causes and Republican politicians.
But, records show, Eshelman’s political giving has declined dramatically since 2012. State and federal campaign finance records show he gave only to U.S. Sen.-elect Thom Tillis and the state Republican Party in 2014. Going back to the 1990s, he had given more than $140,000 to more than a dozen state candidates. And in 2010 and 2012, he gave nearly $4.5 million to Rightchange.com, a national conservative political action committee.
Eshelman said Wednesday it is fair to say he has backed off of political giving in favor of the university.
“This is a tough environment for additional state funding,” he told the crowd. “Therefore if we are in fact going to increase the pace to attain our goals, the private sector must make the investment like never before. It is one of the best investments we could possibly make for our children, our neighbors, our friends and our fellow citizens.”
Not off the hook
But, he added in an interview, he didn’t want to let the politicians off the hook.
“I don’t want to encourage the folks in Raleigh to further cut what they’re giving us,” he said. “We’re hoping, you know, that we’ll get back on our feet there and instead of getting cuts we’re actually going to get some increases. Because there’s no question this is the economic engine in this state.”
Database manager David Raynor contributed to this report.