Ted Waitt was interested in funding a scientific program at the Salk when he asked Inder Verma to invite Ron Evans and other senior investigators to dinner so they could discuss research areas where the Institute could expand over the next five years.
A Salk Trustee since 2004, Waitt turned to Evans and asked: "What's the one thing that's going to be a catalyst...the thing that will make a difference and have a lasting impact?"
His bottom-line question over dinner in 2006 received a unanimous response: Biophotonics – the science that blends biology, nanotechnology, and computer science and gives researchers the ability to probe and record the inner workings of living cells in real time at unprecedented visual resolutions.
The synergistic partnership that evolved between the scientists and the philanthropist, who, through his family foundation, contributed $20 million to establish the Waitt Advanced Biophotonics Center, was the focus of the season-ending event of the salkexcellerators, a group of philanthropically minded, young business leaders.
"I realized that night if we had the ability to see how a specific protein behaves inside a cell in real time, then we could transform how scientific research is done," Waitt said. "As a technology guy, this made sense to me."
The May 6 event also featured talks by Martin Hetzer, associate professor in the Molecular and Cell Biology Laboratory, and Verma, who put what biophotonics technology can offer into perspective.
"We are all biologists, but we are more or less like archeologists. We look at cells, we break them up and then we put the pieces back together," he said. "But wouldn't it be nice to look at a cell as it is functioning, to actually see when a cancer starts. That would revolutionize the way we think and the way we do science."
Hetzer's lab has already shown proof of concept with a modified microscope his lab developed through a grant provided by Salk Chairman Irwin Jacobs. Unlike off-the-shelf microscopes, Hetzer's machine uses sound waves to delve into the nanoworld, allowing his team to follow individual protein complexes within living cells twice as fast and in three dimensions, Hetzer said.
His researchers found a connection between the breakdown of the protein complexes in neurons and the development of filaments, the accumulation of which have long been associated with neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson's disease.
"There's no other way we could have seen this before," Hetzer said. "We believe that the breakdown of these complexes are the very early events that lead to the filaments."
Waitt's multi-million-dollar contribution last year wasn't the first time he had invested in technology believing that it would lead to revolutionary innovation. He found much success after co-founding the personal computer company Gateway, Inc. in the late 1980s.
"When I look for things to invest in, I want to feel that I'm making a difference," Waitt said. "I want to know that what I'm contributing to will really be leveraged. That's why I'm putting my philanthropic money in the sciences.
"I know biophotonics has the potential to truly transform and lead to multiple breakthroughs in science. I believe in science and I believe in innovation because it's going to take innovation to lead to discoveries and job creation," he said. "That is what our future depends on."