Caltech trustee Brad Jones
July 24, 2018

Can We Invent Our Way Out of Global Problems?

Venture capitalist Brad Jones puts his money on ingenuity with a gift to Caltech.

Catastrophe can be the mother of invention. That’s why Brad Jones feels optimistic in the face of climate change. Throughout history, according to the Manhattan Beach–based venture capitalist, people have solved major challenges by inventing things.

To that end, Jones has pledged $5 million to Caltech. Part of his gift endows the G. Bradford Jones Professorship, which Caltech’s president and provost initially will use to support or recruit a top environmental scientist or engineer.

Looking forward, Jones says: “Efforts to decrease carbon emissions help, but not enough. I think we need new technologies that capture carbon to manage global warming. That’s the kind of challenge that warrants the attention of people as smart as those at Caltech.”

But he has an even broader vision for benefiting humanity. After 15 years, by his design, Caltech leaders will award the professorship in any field where breakthroughs can make a difference for the world.

In addition to the professorship, his pledge will create two G. Bradford Jones Fellowships, supporting graduate students in any discipline.

“If they are smart enough to be Caltech graduate students, which is a very elite group,” he says, “then I feel strongly that we in society want them to be able to do that and not be forced by finances to do something else.”

“Caltech has thrived by attracting the most creative scholars and providing the resources that turn possibilities into reality,” says Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum, holder of the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “Through his generous gifts, Brad will empower Caltech scientists and engineers to find solutions for today’s global concerns, and cultivate future generations of researchers to anticipate and address tomorrow’s challenges.”

Pragmatism and Curiosity

Jones is quick to describe himself as “kind of a nerd.” Initially, he says, he majored in math at Harvard. The university’s philosophical approach delighted him. But practicality pulled him away, first to applied math and next to chemistry. Then he encountered quantum physics in chemistry classes, which lured him back to basic science. He earned degrees in chemistry and physics. Finally, to open up career options, he added business and law degrees from Stanford.

Without quite meaning to, he had built a perfect skill set for a venture capitalist. In pursuing that career, he has gained faith in human ingenuity. “In venture capital, I come into contact with so many smart, imaginative people,” he says. “People come up with such interesting ideas. That makes me optimistic that innovation can solve the major problems of the world.”

Over the years, Jones has helped advance many new technologies and solutions—medical devices, biotechnology, software, and tools for communication, computing, and the internet. But his passion for fundamental science went hungry for a long time.

So Jones felt intrigued when his friend Kip Hagopian—a Caltech trustee who hired Jones into his first venture capital job many years ago—invited him to visit Caltech. Jones met with other trustees and with faculty members. Then he began talking with campus leaders. In 2014, he was elected to Caltech’s Board of Trustees.

A Closer View Builds Certainty

As a trustee, Jones has gained an inside view of Caltech. Today, he feels assured that his involvement and giving will lead to solutions that help people worldwide.

“Part of my reason for joining the board was that I understood how capable the faculty and students are,” he says. Now, he hears them describe discoveries at each board meeting.

“It’s one of the most interesting parts of being on the board,” he says. In particular, he cites a talk by Jean Ensminger, Caltech’s Edie and Lew Wasserman Professor of Social Sciences. She developed a new way to detect fraud in international aid projects—by automatically checking financial reports for telltale patterns characteristic to numbers people make up. “That contribution has real value,” Jones says.

As a trustee, Jones also has gained insight into how well Caltech is managed. “I think it’s very important when you’re making a charitable donation to feel that it can make a difference to other people and to the world,” he says. “The best way to ensure that, of course, is to have good people managing the institution you’re giving to. Achieving a mission and maximizing the value of an institution really depends on the management team. I think highly of Caltech’s leadership. From everything I’ve seen, Caltech is run well.”

Now, Jones’s gift will advance key priorities that Caltech leaders have set for the Break Through campaign. His contribution will go far, helping one generation of Caltech scholars and inventors after another solve for a better future.