When Phillip “Terry” ’72 and Susan Ragon created an institute in 2009 to accelerate the discovery of an HIV vaccine, theirs was a transformative gift in more ways than one. By linking MIT, Harvard, and Massachusetts General Hospital as partners, the Ragon Institute is helping to reinvent the silo model that constrains biomedical research.
According to Terry Ragon, while all three institutions have outstanding researchers, it’s their differences that distinguish the partnership. Harvard’s strength in immunology, and MGH’s clinical capacity, together with the “problem-solving attitude” of MIT’s scientists and engineers, have propelled vaccine research in promising directions.
Having earned his SB in physics at MIT before founding data management corporation InterSystems, Ragon shares that relish for tough problems. “Obviously, if we could create an HIV vaccine or a cure—and I think we’re going to do both—that will save millions of lives,” he says. “But what also excites me is that this is by far the most difficult of all viruses. We’re going to have to create new science, pioneer new solutions that could apply to all viral diseases.”
In fact, Ragon’s philanthropic journey did not begin with a focus on HIV. “I spent my senior year of high school in South America, and I saw intense poverty there,” he explains. “It was obvious to me that I had a lot of advantages that were an accident of birth. This gave me a lifelong passion for helping people in developing countries develop the ability to help themselves.” His 2008 trip to South Africa with MGH scientist Bruce Walker, MD, crystallized the issue: “There was very little you could do to help these people unless you could do something specifically about HIV, because it was overwhelming everything; health care, social institutions, culture,” he realized.
“Up to that point,” Ragon continues, “I assumed there was so much money already going into this field that any money I spent would be a waste of time. That’s when I got an education on how science is funded: you get money for research in the exact field you’ve been working in for a long time. And if you don’t have at least a 70% probability of achieving what you expect, you have very little chance of getting NIH funding—which I would say means you’re not doing experiments.”
His thinking about the role of philanthropy has shifted, says Ragon, “not just because somebody needs to fill this void, but because the void’s going to get bigger.” The importance of partnerships in tackling huge scientific challenges extends beyond researchers, into the gap between conventional funders and donors willing to support unconventional notions. “The Ragon Institute’s model is to bet on talented people, and to enable them to get their ideas to a point that more traditional mechanisms can start to fund them.”
In this, too, Ragon says his MIT experiences have shaped his thinking. “My MIT education gave me an appreciation for how science and engineering work. If I didn’t have that background, it wouldn’t have been so obvious to me that there was a better approach for philanthropy to help change the world.”