‘A launch pad for science:’ Wertheim’s $100 million gift to ignite UF Scripps

‘Not one dollar … will go up north,’ UF board chair Mori Hosseini says; aim is to raise $1 billion over 10 years.

Herbert Wertheim

When Dr. Herbert Wertheim was a young engineer working for NASA in the 1960s, he saw miracles take flight. 

Now he’s a billionaire who just gave $100 million to the University of Florida. And he sees Jupiter as the next Cape Canaveral.

“We have what I call ‘sciencenauts,’” he told dignitaries and scientists gathered Oct. 12 at the UF Scripps campus in Abacoa. “They’re going to help us solve health-care problems, not only when you’re sick, but my number one emphasis has been how do we keep people well.

“So let’s think about Jupiter as a launch pad like we think of Cape Canaveral. And this is gonna be a launch pad for science.”

“And I would say, you know, when you get sick, we’re not doing our job, we shouldn’t get paid, we should be paying you. And so, prevention is the best medicine. And if we can achieve that with what we’re trying to do in our labs … not so much making another pill, but to find out why we’re getting sick, and how can we keep from getting sick? That’s an important question we all have.

Herbert Wertheim

His pledge is the first step in raising $1 billion over 10 years for the newly named Herbert Wertheim UF Scripps Institute for Biomedical Innovation & Technology, a not-for-profit academic and research institution consisting of 30 acres in Jupiter’s Abacoa community and 70 vacant acres in Palm Beach Gardens’ Alton community.

And the money will stay in north county — all of it, pledged Mori Hosseini, chairman of UF’s board of trustees.

“What I want to say to Palm Beach County and to Jupiter is that we are absolutely committed to this county,” Hosseini said. “Not one dollar from this gift, and more to come, will go up north. Everything will be invested here.”

UF leaders know that the state’s $310 million investment in 2005 to lure The Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County and the county’s $269 million payment toward construction of the three Abacoa buildings have not created the biotech cluster that then-Gov. Jeb Bush imagined.

But, they say, the Wertheim gift will change that.

“This indeed is the next step in the fulfillment of those that had the vision more than 10 years ago,” UF’s outgoing president, Kent Fuchs, said. “Our university is committed to making this, not just what it is today, which is amazing and spectacular, but indeed part of what will be one of the world’s leading biomedical research centers and institutes anywhere in the world.”

As Wertheim signed a check for $100 million — “The biggest check I ever wrote,” he said — UF executives and local politicians, including five county commissioners and two Palm Beach Gardens council members, sported red fedoras and lined up for photos. 

Herbert Wertheim
Dr. Herbert Wertheim gestures as he discusses his $100 million gift to UF Scripps in Jupiter. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Wertheim, 83, explained his love of the red fedora, telling how he started wearing them 17 years ago after returning from a trip to Ecuador with several colored hats and, the first time he wore it to work, everyone he encountered stopped to tell him how good he looked.

“And I said, ‘Then I ain’t ever gonna take it off.’ Well, 17 years have gone by,” he said, “and there’s only two places I don’t wear it. I don’t wear it in the shower and I don’t wear it to bed.”

In his own words: Dr. Wertheim tells the UF Scripps audience the story of his red hat.

Homespun billionaire

Wertheim turned millions from optical inventions with his company Brain Power Inc. into billions with a buy-and-hold stock strategy that caught the early wave of companies like IBM, Microsoft and Apple. 

Standing behind a lectern, he spoke for 20 minutes in an engaging homespun style referring occasionally to notes on his IPhone. The man listed by Forbes as the world’s 665th wealthiest person at $4 billion made jokes, thanked his mentors and aimed good-natured jibes at people in the room. 

He quipped about how he and his wife, Nicole, have been married 52 years, “a miracle,” he called it, before asking if anyone else in the room had been married that long. “God bless you,” he said. “I mean, you know, it takes a lot of work. But it’s been a really happy time.”

He described how UF turned him away the first time he applied as a student because he didn’t have a high school diploma.

And he provided the first public accounting of the role he played last year in UF’s takeover of Scripps Florida, which occurred shortly after he joined the Scripps board in March 2021.

‘I think maybe I have an idea’

“I had a nice long conversation with (Scripps CEO) Peter Schultz,” he said. “We were talking one day about what’s going on in Florida. And I said ‘Peter,’ I said, ‘that looks like it’s not going where you want it to go.’ And I said, ‘I think maybe I have an idea. I know some people at the University of Florida  (where he had made a $50 million contribution to its engineering school in 2015). And I can make a phone call. And maybe we can put some juice into that situation.’

“He gave me permission to call our ‘presidente-engineer,’ Fuchs. And I said, ‘Have I got a deal for you.’ 

“I think I got him out of bed, because in California we’re three hours difference. Anyway, he said, ‘That’s a good idea. Let me see what I can do.’ 

UF Scripps
UF board Chairman Mori Hosseini speaks with County Commissioner Maria Marino before the presentation. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

“Well, he gathered all the resources. And then he got Mori (Hosseini) here. I call him the godfather. I mean, he can really reach into your pockets, there’s no question about it. And then they made it happen.

“Peter felt comfortable, the board felt comfortable about transitioning this organization to be under the care of UF. And that’s not to say that we’ve parted ways from Scripps. I mean, there’s where the DNA is. Their DNA is our DNA. And we wish to be able to keep it going day in and day out.”

The deal called for UF to take over the buildings, the scientists, the royalties — everything Scripps had built in Florida — for $100 and a promise to retain the Scripps name. UF closed the deal in April. 

Since then, UF has announced a partnership with Jupiter Medical Center, which The Palm Beach Post reported would include a 50- to 80-bed research hospital on the 70-acre Alton site. On Oct. 4, the partners announced plans to build a 20-bed hospital in Avenir in western Palm Beach Gardens. 

UF also has lined up $100 million in state money and $100 million in donations to build a graduate school campus in downtown West Palm Beach.

UF Scripps
One of three UF Scripps buildings in Jupiter paid for by Palm Beach County taxpayers. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

‘What are we going to do with $1 billion?’

But UF’s takeover of Scripps didn’t end there for Wertheim. He started researching what the Jupiter campus could do with $100 million, using an approach to give away money similar to his approach for making it.

He spoke to scientists at Stanford, University of California-Berkeley, UC-Los Angeles, UC-San Diego and with Scripps CEO Schultz. 

“I went to them. And I said, ‘What would you like to see? What are we going to do with $1 billion over a 10-year period of time?’”

“You know, being a billionaire is not so easy. I’m serious when I say that. If you have a billion dollars, you have to figure out some way to give away $100 million 10 times. If you have four or 5 billion, you have to figure out 50 times how to give away $100 million. And to do it sensibly and with good judgment.”

Herbert Wertheim

“And I think if you have an opportunity to read this plan, and what we’re going to do, you’ll be excited. We have $40 million for undergraduates to come here and study under the greatest scientists that we know, 40 million bucks to do it, and it covers a stipend and a place to live.

“We have five chairs, now, that’ll be funded. Five million bucks, three from me,” he said, with one in his specialty, vision health.

Referring to partnerships he has started with Stanford and UC-San Francisco to open children’s vision clinics and children’s hospitals nationally, he said, “We want that same research to come to our community to be able to help our children and our population to be able to keep their vision as long as they possibly can and to retain it.”

A $4 million faculty club will be a space for collaboration with the community, Wertheim said. 

“We have more money to bring in great speakers, and musicians, and lecturers and things like that,” he said. “So this is not just going to be a research place. This is going to be a place for humanity.”

Red hat
Bottom from left: UF Health President David Nelson, billionaire Herbert Wertheim, UF President Kent Fuchs, UF board Chairman Mori Hosseini; top from left, PBC school district Chief of Staff Jay Boggess, Economic Council director Michele Jacobs, business leader George Elmore, Business Development Board Chairman Harvey Oyer and Palm Beach North Chamber director Noel Martinez. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

‘I fell in love with the University of Florida’

Hitting the books wasn’t always easy for Wertheim. He grew up in Hollywood, Fla., dyslexic but didn’t know it. “I thought I was just dumb,” he said.

As Forbes magazine described it in a 2019 story headlined “The Greatest Investor You’ve Never Heard Of: An Optometrist Who Beat The Odds To Become A Billionaire,” Wertheim said he ditched high school to hang out in the swamp with friends from the Seminole Indian tribe. That is until a truancy officer took him before a judge who remanded him for a four-year stint in the Navy.

At first, UF turned him away because all he had was a Navy GED. So he went to Brevard Community College and, after two years, he had to get his state GED just to graduate.

“I said, ‘If I can’t pass the GED, you know, after two years of college, I’m in trouble.’ Anyway, I did graduate and then came to the University of Florida.

Billionaire Herbert Wertheim
Dr. Herbert Wertheim leaves the podium Oct. 12. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

“And I fell in love with the University of Florida. I mean, they just nurtured me, you know? Took good care of me.”

Still, he left before he got his engineering degree because he jumped at the chance to attend the School of Optometry at the University of Tennessee.

“I just love helping people discover things. And somebody asked me, it was one of the interviews, they said, ‘Well, what do you want to do in your life? What do you want to be remembered for?’ I said, ‘I want to be remembered for my kindness, and the ability to spread knowledge as often as possible.’ That’s what I want to be remembered for.”

Herbert Wertheim

Among the four mentors he thanked was Dr. Walter Mauderly, a UF scientist.

“He taught me more physics, more chemistry, more math, more everything in my life,” he said. “One of the reasons I’m so damn smart is because of him.”

He shared one more story to press home the ultimate goal. 

“We had a sign in our office,” he said. “‘We do the impossible right away, but miracles take overnight.’ So what we’re doing here is a little bit right away, but mostly overnight. And there’ll be a lot of overnights but I believe we can reach where we’re trying to go.”

“And I have a thing I always say. We all have only two things in common, all of us. One is time and our humanity. What we do with those two things defines who we are. Just those two things, time and humanity. How you use those will actually influence the world and yourself.”

Herbert Wertheim

© 2022 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

2 thoughts on “‘A launch pad for science:’ Wertheim’s $100 million gift to ignite UF Scripps”

  1. Was talking with a Scripps guy looking for painter’s rags at HD a couple days ago. It appears there’s a much bigger story here than this feel good one. He said the perception amongst staff was that Scripps La Jolla sold them out to this venture. According to him, the scientists cannot get grants under the UF logo, so they are leaving. His biggest beef (pun intended) was the cessation of free breakfast and lunch (“you could even get a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if you wanted”). Dig deeper, Joel.

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