When you get cancer, you are initially terrified,” says David Koch, who has had prostate cancer for 15 years.
“It makes you appreciate the fact that you are alive. It gives you great sympathy for other people who suffer from this disease. Eventually, my thoughts turned to what can I do to support the development of therapies and cures?”
Recently, Koch gave MIT $100 million to create The David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research that will bring together MIT scientists and engineers to develop amazing new ways to detect, diagnose, and treat cancer.
“I can’t tell you how delighted I am that this project is going forward,” he says. “To me, the war on cancer is like World War I trench warfare. You make progress in yards and not in hundreds of miles. It’s a slow, tough struggle, but the progress is steady.
“I’d love for researchers to develop breakthroughs that suddenly cure some horrible cancer that kills enormous numbers of people, but that’s not the way the battle with cancer will be won. It’s a slow, steady, incremental struggle towards developing better knowledge and therapies.”
Koch, who is executive vice president and board member of Koch Industries, Inc., a $90 billion energy and manufacturing company in Wichita, Kansas, has supported cancer research at various institutions for 15 years, and says this is the largest gift he has ever made.
“I have been aware of the fantastic people at MIT’s cancer center and their fantastic discoveries and achievements for a long time,” says Koch, adding that he has also been aware of “their inadequate facilities in a converted candy factory. I felt that this fabulous group ought to work in a facility equal to the enormous talent of the people working there.” The new facility is slated to open in 2010.
Koch, who has given millions for research at hospitals and cancer centers nationwide, serves on more than 20 boards, including 11 boards at hospitals and research institutions across the country. He says he is continuously contacted by people who have cancer, who want advice, direction, and the names of doctors. “Whenever I get such a call, I drop everything and immediately go to work to find them the right specialist,” says Koch, whose parents and three brothers also had the disease.
“There are so many forms of cancer, there’s no one solution,” he says. “What we need is for researchers to find dozens, hundreds, maybe even thousands of different cures.”
NO ‘COUNTRY CLUB BUM’
Koch was raised on a farm in Wichita, Kansas. His late father, Fred C. Koch, MIT class of ’22, founded Koch Industries in 1925, made a fortune, and vowed to teach his four sons to become honorable, honest, and principled. He didn’t want them to grow up to become “country club bums.”
Koch says beginning at age 11, his Dad insisted that he take manual jobs. “I drove the tractor to cut the grass, did yard work, and cleaned the horses. I didn’t get an allowance. I needed to earn it.”
Later, he worked in the family’s manufacturing plant, dug ditches on a pipeline system in southwestern Oklahoma (“That was brutal”), and cut and baled hay on the family’s cattle ranch in Montana.
Koch, who was not married until he was diagnosed with cancer and “realized I wasn’t going to live forever,” now lives in New York with his wife and three small children, whom he intends to raise with the same values that were instilled in him. “When they’re a little older, I want them to work hard.”
GENEROUS TO OTHERS
Koch, who earned an MIT degree in chemical engineering in 1962 and a master’s in 1963, loves to travel. He has visited 62 countries and there are another 40 he’d like to visit. “Going to the Himalayas was fascinating, going on safari in Africa, climbing Kilimanjaro,” says Koch, who once took his mother to Machu Picchu, and who often charters a yacht to cruise the seas with his family and friends.
He says that life has brought him many lessons. “There are so many things you learn as you go through life, but it’s darn important to be extraordinarily decent, honest, principled, and generous to others.
“Life is more enjoyable if you are doing good works for people. Helping to create a successful, positive environment for everyone around you is an enormous psychological reward. This has been the most satisfying thing that I’ve been able to achieve in my life.”
Koch, who says he has love, family, success, and great wealth, adds: “The big thing I wish I didn’t have is cancer.”