David H. Murdock’s vision for Kannapolis is to turn the former mill town into a world class hub of nutrition and agricultural research and he’s contributed more than $700 million of his fortune toward that goal.

But the billionaire businessman said he has never publicly announced any of his monetary donations – to the North Carolina Research Campus or anything else. On Wednesday Murdock announced a $50 million gift to the research institute that bears his name and for the first time, he explained why this gift matters.

Murdock has lived in North Carolina for 30 years. When Pillowtex shuttered the former Canon Mills site in 2003, he said that he wanted to do something to help the thousands of workers who lost their jobs. Personal motivations also drove Murdock. His wife died of cancer and his family had its share of health problems.

Murdock is a successful man by any measure. Besides owning Dole Foods, Murdock owns other businesses around the world. But Murdock, who is dyslexic and dropped out of school after eighth grade, revealed that he had frequently been labeled by others as stupid. Supporting research is an opportunity to pursue something smart resulting in a positive impact on human health. And even though Murdock acknowledges that he lacks scientific acumen, he saw an opportunity to have social impact through science.

Core laboratory

The non-profit David H. Murdock Research Institute is now the core laboratory on the North Carolina Research Campus, home to 16 corporate, university and health care entities focused on research in human health, agriculture and nutrition. The seeds of that campus were planted in 2005, when Murdock went to New York to buy the Canon Mills site at auction.

“That was the beginning of what has been going on for some time,” he told an audience gathered at the Washington Duke Inn in Durham.

Murdock’s $50 million gift will keep the DHMRI going for quite a bit longer. The gift does not come with milestones or requirements. Scientific research requires money, he said. While Murdock acknowledged that at times the scientific breakthroughs have not come quickly as he hoped, he said that the overall economy has dampened research work at the DHMRI and elsewhere.

The gift is set to cover the DHMRI’s operational costs over the next eight years. Murdock said he’s not looking beyond eight years and he said more money may be needed along the way. But he said that the goal is to build momentum for the DHMRI so that other entities, in research and academia, come along as partners willing to invest in the institute’s work.

Steve Lommel, interim president of the DHMRI and assistant vice chancellor for research at N.C. State University, said that the DHMRI is starting to move away from its earlier role of primarily supporting the research needs of its partners. Now the institute will put emphasis on doing its own research.

“We’re going to be hiring our own scientists so that we can do our own mission research, like most research institutes do,” he said. “And that $50 million will allow us to move to that final phase of development.”

Research momentum

Lommel said that the institute is making progress in understanding how the compounds in food contribute to an individual’s predisposition to health or disease. When pharmaceutical companies try to understand the impact of drugs on an individual level, it’s called “personalized medicine.” The goal of DHMRI research is to develop a “personalized diet.” The DHMRI is working to generate the early data in this research to develop a better understanding of nutrition. Lommel said the next step would be to get that information into the public space, where universities or possibly industry could develop solutions.

While the $50 million gift will support the DHMRI’s broad goal of nutritional research, in the near term the money means the lab will be able to replace outdated equipment. Lommel said that some instruments have a lifetime of perhaps a decade or slightly longer. But when it comes to researching how genetic factors affect nutritional needs and the likelihood of developing particular diseases, equipment used for genomics, proteomics and metabolomics, can become outdated in two to three years because of technological advances.

Dr. Robert Califf, vice chancellor for clinical and translational research at the Duke University Medical Center, said that the gift is crucial at this particular moment in time because the DHMRI’s model is to have collaboration with federally-funded projects. The economic downturn resulted in fewer investments in such projects. The across the board federal budget cuts called sequestration means that there’s even less money to go around. The $50 million gift will set the DHMRI apart from others seeking similar projects.

“This will really give us leverage compared to the competition,” Califf said.