April 27, 2016

A Business Strategy for Discovery

As a CEO, Kevin Taweel has often been faced with the difficult responsibility of choosing the perfect job candidate based solely on a résumé and a two-hour interview. But when it comes to his philanthropy at Caltech, he doesn’t have to choose between candidates for support. Taweel and his wife, Debra, give to empower those who best understand Caltech’s people and their potential to make the greatest impact.

“I have an interest in different areas across Caltech, but I truly have an interest in the institution as a whole,” Taweel says. “I want to support the president and provost and what they believe is the best use of those funds.”

Established this past January with a gift of $1.5 million, the Kevin and Debra Taweel Discovery Fund provides flexible, endowed resources for launching innovative, high-risk, high-reward lines of inquiry that otherwise might not get off the ground.

“Former provost and division chair Barclay Kamb (BS ’52, PhD ’56) once told me that it’s the faculty’s job to think of great ideas, and the administration’s job to help them put those ideas into action,” says Caltech Provost Edward M. Stolper, the Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair and William E. Leonhard Professor of Geology. “I believe that when faculty members know about the existence of funds to help them accomplish the things they want to do, that stimulates creativity. Caltech does this, and the Taweels’ gift will help make sure that we can continue to be there to support our people in doing their most interesting, difficult, and creative work.”

“I’ve come to appreciate the immense impact that Caltech has had on society and the need that it fills of conducting core, basic research that can be truly game-changing. Caltech is an important global institution that needs to be supported—for all of our benefit.”
- Kevin Taweel

Taweel first got to know Caltech in 2012, when he joined the Board of Trustees. How does someone go from being unfamiliar with an institution to entrusting that institution with a substantial discretionary fund in just a few years? An early visit to campus for brief sit-downs with a series of faculty members and graduate students played a big role.

“It was sort of like an intellectual feast—a series of wow moments,” Taweel recalls. “There’s so much in such a small, compact area, and I realized that people here don’t have to break down barriers because there are no barriers.”

The Taweels were struck by a combination of three signature Caltech characteristics that led them to invest: the Institute’s willingness to identify and take smart risks, its ability to find and attract impressive talent, and its practice of throwing support behind those talented scholars—especially early in their careers.

“You don’t see a lot of organizations willing to take on these problems and take these risks,” he says. “Other places tend to be more conservative, looking for those singles and doubles rather than home runs.”

Taweel understands how organizations function: He is a seasoned entrepreneur and corporate strategist who co-founded and runs Asurion Corporation, a global technology-protection leader with more than 16,000 employees that began as a 40-person operation. In addition, he co-teaches a course called Managing Growing Enterprises at Stanford Graduate School of Business.

The Taweel Discovery Fund could bolster research in countless ways—from creating faculty startup packages or purchasing new instrumentation to funding fellowships that allow young scholars to pursue potentially significant lines of inquiry wherever they may lead. Taweel believes that when graduate students and postdoctoral scholars are consigned to closely follow ideas from the professors or labs that fund them, important creative opportunities are lost. His discovery fund champions Caltech’s efforts to do things differently.

“Caltech really tries to take as much of the burden of financing off the table as possible to allow researchers to do what they do best,” says Taweel. “If someone has a promising idea that’s worth going after, they have the environment and means to go after it.”