February 1, 2016

Rosens Recharge Support for Bioengineering

“Just as we had the digital revolution in the last century, we are having a biological sciences revolution this century,” posits Caltech alumnus and board chair emeritus Benjamin M. (Ben) Rosen (BS ’54), philanthropist and longtime chairman of Compaq Computer Corporation. “And Caltech is the place to be.”

Ben Rosen and his wife, Donna, have made a bequest commitment to advance scientific exploration at the intersection of biology and engineering. It is anticipated that the couple’s latest gift may double the endowment for the Donna and Benjamin M. Rosen Bioengineering Center, which was established in 2008 with support from the Benjamin M. Rosen Family Foundation of New York.

“The Rosen Center reflects Caltech’s distinctive approach to the biosciences, which spans the continuum from fundamental discovery to translational science and health technology, from bioinspired design and biofuels to molecular medicine and nanoelectronics,” says President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, holder of the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. “Ben and Donna’s recent gift will provide students and faculty members the resources to seize new opportunities and follow their instincts wherever the research leads them.”

Since its inception, the Rosen Center has become a hub for Caltech scientists’ efforts to generate solutions to some of the biggest problems in science, medicine, and sustainability. “And it all began with a four-floor elevator pitch,” laughs Donna Rosen.

Some seven years ago, during a Caltech board retreat, the Rosens approached an open elevator and called out to the person inside to hold the door. The passenger obliged, and the Rosens stepped inside. By the time the doors opened again, the couple had agreed to fund a nascent bioengineering center at Caltech.

It was Provost Edward M. Stolper, the Carl and Shirley Larson Provostial Chair and William E. Leonard Professor of Geology, who delivered the 40-second speech that inspired the Rosens to direct their initial $18 million gift to establish the center at Caltech.

Stolper recalls: “In the famous elevator ride (at this point I cannot recall how many floors we covered, but we were lucky to be in a tall building!), I explained what I believed to be the long-term importance for Caltech of establishing a center to stimulate and amplify research and education in bioengineering. I also explained that it would be timely to get such a center started sooner rather than later.”

According to Stolper, the Rosens quickly saw the potential of such a center to make a difference for Caltech’s upward trajectory and for the world at large. “I have known Ben and Donna for a long time, and they are extraordinary friends of Caltech,” he says. “Their decisive action in making the Rosen Center possible is yet another example to add to the long list of philanthropic commitments that have helped shape Caltech over the past few decades.”

“Over the years, what has impressed me the most about Caltech is the young people I meet; they are there to make a difference in the world that we all live in.”
- Donna Rosen

One of the latest developments at the Rosen Center is the Biotechnology Leadership Pre-doctoral Training Program, which welcomed its inaugural cohort of six students in August 2015. Frances Arnold, Caltech’s Dick and Barbara Dickinson Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry and director of the center since 2013, worked with 21 faculty members from across campus to develop the program.

“With a focus on micro/nano medicine, this program encompasses research and coursework, an industrial internship, assistance with commercialization of research results, and biotechnology site visits,” Arnold says. “This modern approach will help students and faculty translate the discoveries they make in the lab into new technologies and products that solve real-world problems.”

The Rosen Center advances research and educational initiatives in applied physics, chemical engineering, synthetic biology, computer science, and more. Ben Rosen ascribes Caltech’s leadership in bioengineering to this cross-disciplinary approach as well as to the Institute’s intentional smallness. “There’s probably no other institution, certainly in this country, whose goal is to not grow,” he explains. “Most universities have the same mentality as most corporations, which is to grow, grow, grow. But when you grow, you grow at a price. And one of the prices is sacrificing excellence for size.”

Rosen’s instinct for achieving excellence is well honed. Named by Computerworld magazine in 1992 as one of the 25 people “who changed the world,” Rosen is widely credited with helping to shape the modern computer industry through his backing of more than 100 technology startups, including Compaq, Citrix, Electronic Arts, Lotus, and Silicon Graphics. He received the Founders Medal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers 1999 and Caltech’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 2007.

A trustee since 1986, he traces his major philanthropic involvement with Caltech back to 1989, when he and his siblings, Harold Rosen (MS ’48, PhD ’51) and Ruth Rosen Weisler, established the Anna L. Rosen Professorship in honor of their mother. In 1998, Ben Rosen co-chaired the Institute’s $100 million Biological Sciences Initiative, and he endowed graduate fellowships in the biological sciences in 2001. Also carrying the Rosen name at Caltech is the Benjamin M. Rosen Professorship, established by Compaq Computer Corporation in 2002 “as an enduring tribute to and legacy for an exceptional man and a singular leader.”

The Rosens’ most recent endeavor outside of Caltech was to create KentPresents. The charitable organization hosted its inaugural three-day Idea Festival in August 2015, benefiting low- and moderate-income communities around Kent, Connecticut. The program featured Nobel laureates, Pulitzer Prize winners, and influential thinkers in fields including economics, education, medicine, and global affairs.

The Rosens live in New York City but make annual visits to campus, where Donna Rosen is struck by her conversations with students. Along with its interdisciplinary approach, small size, and exceptional faculty, she finds Caltech’s students to be remarkable.

“Over the years, what has impressed me the most about Caltech is the young people I meet; they are there to make a difference in the world that we all live in,” Donna Rosen says. “They really do want to make the world a better place, and I find that to be unique among the universities I am involved with. Caltech’s standards are different.”