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Face to Face: A Conversation with Alexander W. Dreyfoos Jr.
The venture capitalist and businessman talks about his involvement in the Scripps Florida project and its benefits to Palm Beach County.
Q. Given your background in science and business, what was your early impression of Scripps' moving to Palm Beach County? Did you think it would live up to the hype even then? Were you skeptical at all?
A. Well, I did get some preliminary information about them, and it turned out that one of the key researchers had been a key researcher at [the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and they had a science advisory board that I think has nine Nobel Prize winners, and a couple of those were from MIT [my alma mater], one of whom I knew fairly well, Phil Sharp. So I obviously inquired of them and they said, "These people really do first-rate research and this is a great operation in La Jolla." Then I asked a few questions about, "Well, why would they come here?" Well, of course, for the money. You can't help but say, hey, $500 million does make you think pretty hard. But two major reasons, I think. One, they truly have outgrown their facility in La Jolla. Secondly, they will acknowledge that many times they make offers to scientists and not everybody wants to live in California. These top researchers they're looking for, they truly can write their own ticket to where they're going to be.
Q. Would Florida be any different for them?
A. Yes, just being on the East Coast, closer to various places. And quite frankly, as you may know, Orlando was one of the areas they were considering, and I like to think this building [the Kravis Center] and the Norton [Museum of Art], you know, played a role in their picking Palm Beach County.
Certainly, those types of things were important. Whether it was the key or not, I don't know.
Q. How did you get to know Scripps President Dr. Richard Lerner and what led to your nomination to Scripps' Board of Trustees?
A. Well, the introduction was done by Will Ray. Will had been running the Arts Council and [as a council founder and its first chairman] I had gotten to know Will pretty well, and Will [now Scripps' vice president of external affairs] thought it would be great. When Dr. Lerner was in town, he just got us together, and one thing led to another
Q. What do you think you can add to Scripps' presence here in Florida?
A. Well, perhaps avoiding some pitfalls of one sort or another. I really have some notoriety.
Q. Is it notoriety?
A. Listen, if you ask around, you can find out lots of opinions about me. But people have certainly been interested and many people have said they picked the right person, so who knows? But I think that I can make introductions for them You'd have to ask them why they picked me.
But one of the main reasons why I said yes is that one concern that I've continued to have is that we export our children, our bright kids. They go to the Yales and Princetons and the MITs and they don't come back, and I think that's a shame. And as you know, we have an older age skew in the community, and I don't think we deserve that in the long run.
So I'm truly hoping that, not only Scripps -- but as you know the whole concept is that Scripps will lead other bio-tech firms here and the other big pharmaceuticals would want to be close to it. That's certainly what the governor is aiming at, and I'd like to think he's going to be successful.
Q. They've obviously stepped up the expectation of what we're going to get out of the Scripps venture -- 50,000 jobs, $3.2 billion in economic growth within 15 years -- all those numbers seem astronomical right now.
A. They do seem astronomical, and certainly the time expectations, I think, are unrealistic. But the only thing you can do is put one foot in front of the other and move in that direction. And certainly if you've had a chance to be in La Jolla, it's an impressive operation and an impressive number of companies that they have around them.
Q. What about the argument from some skeptics that you can't reproduce La Jolla here in Palm Beach County, or anywhere -- that that was something that germinated on its own, and so many things would have to fall into place so poetically for it to happen?
A. Well, I'm not sure I understand why. I mean, already it appears that they've been successful in hiring a number of researchers, and I know there are a number of offers out. Charles Weisman [tapped to lead Scripps Florida's science program] is clearly a major player in the field, and there will be others. I'll be talking to a couple more that are coming, you know, interested and so forth. I think they have a very good chance of doing it.
And the other thing is that the $300 million the governor has provided will allow them to do something that is the major reason that organizations like that have philanthropy. The National Institutes of Health does support largely these operations, but they only provide support to proven researchers based on papers that have good scientific documen-tation, that have been referred to by other scientists and so forth. The problem you have is this gap you have between being a bright post-doc and getting to the point where you've written these papers.
And so what an organization like Scripps needs to do is identify those potential people and then bring them in and underwrite them until they've gotten to the point where they can get their own NIH grants. And so, I think, this $300 million is going to play a big role in that.
Q. What else would have to fall into place, besides getting the right people, for this to become the awesome success the governor expects it to be?
A. Well, I do think we are at a great time for medical research, you know, unwinding the DNA and this way of mass testing based on using robots and so forth. Some of those machines were actually invented, I think, by Dr. Lerner. So I think we're going to really see the pace really pick up, and it will become -- many drug discoveries today -- I hesitate to use the word accidental, I don't think that's true -- they happen because people observe odd phenomena and then study it further and that leads to trying various things, or trial and error, which you'd have to do on a massive basis
As these scientists discover more and more about how these molecules work and how they behave and how our genes work, this is going to allow us to target these things much more rapidly. So I think we're going to see just some great things, and clearly the payoff can be huge. I think that as the industry learns how to make inventions more productive, we're going to see some great things happen.
Q. And you think Scripps in Florida is the one to do it?
A. I certainly would give them a good shot. But there's great work going on at MIT and Johns Hopkins and many, many places. I think the key is to make sure the bright people who have the best potential for doing these things have the chance at doing them.
Q. What do you think Scripps stands to do realistically for Palm Beach County and Florida? Some say it will elevate the education system and put Florida on the map in the bio-tech world. What do you think?
A. That's exactly what I think will happen. What I'm so hopeful for is that it will. You know, we've got pockets of great education, but we deserve to do even better.
Q. Another reason Scripps chose you to sit on its board of trustees is because you are such a noted benefactor and you know so many people in the community. Do you think the philanthropic community in South Florida can sustain Scripps when the state money runs out in seven years?
A. I think the philanthropy will come from lots of places, particularly as areas of study become publicized that show promise, I think people will come forward to support them. That's been the history of that out in La Jolla and at MIT, and I think the same thing will happen here. It follows the technology You have to have the right project at the right time and you have to present it in a way that can be understood.
And the other feeling I have is that nobody gives away their last dollar. People become interested in projects and that's what leads to [giving]. I've tried to raise money for MIT. In 1992, we opened [the Kravis Center] and as I've said, we had 13 million-dollar donations at a time that there had been almost no million-dollar gifts being given in the Palm Beach County area. We had clearly generated interest from a broad base in the community.
And I thought, We did this successfully; it would be nice to do something for MIT. So I had the president of MIT come down, together with a Nobel Prize winner, one of the key researchers, and we had a great dinner. It was at my home, and we had great talks by these two people. Zero, in terms of fund-raising.
What it really said was: Listen, Dreyfoos, you're an MIT alumnus and you like MIT, and probably other people who aren't alumni like MIT because they like the cause; but this particular group of people, their cause had been the Kravis Center and it wasn't MIT, and you can't confuse the two.
Q. You bring up a significant point. Isn't it difficult to sell something like Scripps and what they do, because what they do is so early in the continuum of a real product that people can put their hands on; so how do you convey that in a way that makes them want to give?
A. Well, that's something I need to learn, but Scripps obviously knows how to do it. I mean, they're raising $20 million or so a year out in California. You walk through the laboratories, and there are names all over the place of people who feel good about what Scripps has done. And I think that's just a matter of identifying those people, some of whom have already been identified. I know there are several gifts that are going to be announced fairly shortly.
Q. As a board member, what is your role, essentially?
A. I think some of it is being an ambassador. As I say, some of it is to introduce people, and I think some of it is -- while some of the arguments are going on in the county chambers -- is to say my experience with this person is that he's solid and you can count on what he says, or this person is maybe doing it for the wrong reason, or what have you. You just try to use the experience you've gained over the years.
Alexander W. Dreyfoos Jr., 72, is an accomplished businessman and venture capitalist whose photo electronics company pioneered the design and manufacture of digital imaging processing equipment used in color photography laboratories. An inventor in his own right, he holds 10 U.S. and various foreign patents, and his company even won a 1971 Academy Award for developing the motion picture video analyzer.
He is best-known as a philanthropist who founded the Palm Beach County Arts Council, owned WPEC-Channel 12 for 23 years, helped get the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts built in West Palm Beach and still serves as the Kravis Center's chairman and chief fund-raiser. His $1 million gift to the Palm Beach County schools helped fund an arts magnet high school in West Palm Beach that bears his name, and he has pledged millions more to his alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He was recently named to the Scripps Research Institute's Board of Trustees, four months after the biomedical giant announced its planned expansion to Palm Beach County with the benefit of $569 million in taxpayer incentives from the state and county.