Seller Looks to Science for Legacy

Wednesday, July 12th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) — Forty years ago, Jay Van Andel helped come up with an idea that revolutionized direct-selling and made him a billionaire.

Now the 76-year-old co-founder of Amway Corp. is hoping to do the same for life sciences but for very different reasons.

The doors formally opened in May to the Van Andel Institute — a $60 million research facility that will likely be his billion dollar-plus legacy and a weapon in the fight against diseases like cancer, as well as the Parkinson's and Alzheimer's that have shadowed him and his wife Betty respectively in their later years.

``I can think of no better way to touch the life of each person on earth than to support the research that will extend human life and reduce human pain and suffering,'' he said in a written response to interview questions. He declined to be interviewed in person.

Van Andel is not the first rich man to want to make a difference.

But unlike other wealthy philanthropists who are affiliated with or have donated money to existing hospitals or medical programs, Van Andel, who has no medical or scientific background, has started from scratch.

The Van Andel Institute, or VAI, is in downtown Grand Rapids, at least an hour away from any major university or medical school. Although it will have relationships with academic and medical facilities, it won't officially be affiliated with anyone.

It will, however, be a part of Michigan's ``Life Sciences Corridor,'' a research effort funded by $1 billion of the state's tobacco settlement to encourage the state's various research facilities to work together.

The independence was important to ensure support for ``high-risk, cutting-edge projects,'' Van Andel said. He never considered basing the institute anywhere but his hometown but foresees a time when it will have branches around the world.

About 55 scientists from a dozen countries have agreed to work at the institute, which expects to eventually have a staff of 200. Four research papers from the institute staff also have been published.

The institute has assembled a board of advisers including three Nobel laureates to help guide and recruit scientists.

Betty and Jay Van Andel will not have a daily role in the institute's administration. Their children are on its boards, including son David, the institute's chairman.

Starting a medical research facility is no small task.

Only a handful of similarly funded, independent research institutions around the country exist. Most others have ties to a university or are located in areas with established scientific communities, like Cambridge, Mass., or San Francisco.

Institute President Luis Tomatis admits Grand Rapids is not known for scientific or medical research, but he expects the institute to change that by providing scientists with the tools and opportunities to make new discoveries.

Determining the institute's course in the ever-changing world also may prove challenging.

An internal review board will work with family members to make decisions about areas of science which might conflict with the Van Andels' strong Christian beliefs.

Jay Van Andel doesn't answer directly when asked whether researchers would be allowed to use cells from aborted fetuses, a practice that some believe holds promise for curing Alzheimer's. But he leaves no doubt where his family stands.

``As it is presently constructed and organized I have no doubt that the Institute will adhere to our family's beliefs,'' he writes, adding that these are the types of questions scientists and research institutions must address.

For now, the Van Andels are focused on the debut of their latest commitment to a community where they are known for their philanthropy.

The elder Van Andel has not said how much money he will leave to the institute, other than it will be most of his taxable estate, which is estimated to be in the billions.

``In two or three generations when people look at the Van Andel Institute, they won't remember how the family made their money,'' said son David Van Andel. ``What they will remember is that a family cared enough to focus their energies on helping the human race.''


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