David Kabiller wanted to pursue a career in medical research when he showed up at Northwestern University in the early ’80s on a tennis scholarship. The Deerfield native ended up studying economics and finance, getting an MBA at the Kellogg School of Management en route to a successful career on Wall Street. But he never forgot about Northwestern or research.
Two years ago, he set aside a chunk of his estimated $1 billion fortune to fund the Kabiller Prize, $250,000, and the Kabiller Young Investigator Award, $10,000. They are given every other year to two top researchers in nanomedicine, which is primarily chemistry and one of the most promising avenues for cancer treatment.
“I’m fascinated by the problems they’re tackling,” said Kabiller, 54, who is co-founder of AQR Capital Management, a $200 billion hedge fund based in Greenwich, Conn. “I don’t believe the public sector can be the only answer. You’re going to need the private sector to step in, too.”
“I’m interested in the concept of leverage,” continued Kabiller, who has been on the university’s board of trustees for 14 years. “We’re not curing cancer with this award. It’s not enough. This investment is to inspire and get others engaged. It’s betting on the future.”
The awards are a big deal in nanotech, the science of the small, as in sub-microscopic. The newest recipients, honored Sept. 27, are Robert Langer, a chemical engineer and pioneer in applying nanotech to drug delivery, and Liangfang Zhang, a professor of nano-engineering at the University of California in San Diego.
MEET THE WINNERS
Langer, a legendary researcher and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is one of the most prolific inventors in the field, with more than 1,400 patents to his credit, received the $250,000 prize. And Zhang, who once worked in Langer’s lab, won the $10,000 award.
Langer, who has started 40 companies, is credited with breakthroughs such as enabling medicine to target specific cells and in tissue engineering, which led to artificial skin and organs on a chip. Zhang coated tiny particles in natural membranes to improve drug delivery.
The awards are administered by Northwestern University’s International Institute for Nanotechnology, headed by Chad Mirkin, a researcher who has been at the university 26 years. His most recent startup, Skokie-based Exicure, just raised another $20 million.As a trustee, Kabiller had become chair of IIN’s executive council and later decided to fund the award, which is the largest in nanomedicine. It’s akin to the Lemelson-MIT prize, a $500,000 award for the nation’s top inventors, established in 1994 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Such awards burnish a university’s reputation in the field.
Former Northwestern President Henry Bienen “made a big bet that the study of small would be an area that would allow the university to become pre-eminent,” Kabiller said. “As a trustee, it combined my interest in medicine and my ambitions for Northwestern to have an impact and be a leader in something new.”