La Jolla billionaire donates $220M in unusual quest to make people healthier

Jenna Mencarelli does track and field drills while Jon Gregory assesses her form
Senior Jenna Mencarelli does track and field drills while performance coordinator Jon Gregory assesses her form at UC San Diego.
(Brittany Cruz-Fejeran/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Joe and Clara Tsai’s gift focuses on lessons to be learned from elite athletes


On the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, a La Jolla billionaire couple is giving scientists $220 million to study the biology of elite athletes in hopes of gaining insights that will broadly help people live longer, healthier lives.

The gift from Joe and Clara Tsai appears to be among the largest ever made for sports-related health and medical research and will benefit the Salk Institute in La Jolla, a world leader in basic biology, and UC San Diego, which specializes in turning discoveries into drugs and therapies.

They will share the $220 million with Stanford, which will lead the new Wu Tsai Human Performance Alliance, as well as Boston Children’s Hospital, the University of Kansas and the University of Oregon.

The Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center, where some current Olympic athletes have been working out, and the San Diego Padres are likely to become part of the research, according to UCSD.

“Scientific funding has traditionally been focused on the study of diseases,” Clara Wu Tsai said in a statement Wednesday.

“We are taking the opposite approach and studying the human body at its healthiest and most vital, to enable the thriving of all people — from an Olympic Gold Medal-level athlete to a grandfather lacking the mobility to enjoy a full life.”

The Salk will focus on the role that genes and molecules play in training, healing and recovery, while UCSD comes up with models that better predict how changes in tissues affect the body.

It’s part of a broader look at the bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons and soft tissue that make up the musculoskeletal system. Problems with this part of the body can cause crippling pain and stiffness, especially in older people.

The system contributes to many common disorders, including arthritis, which has affected the careers of such legendary golfers as Tiger Woods and San Diego’s Phil Mickelson. It’s also at the root of the kind of rotator-cuff shoulder injuries that led Padres pitcher Mike Clevinger to undergo Tommy John surgery earlier this season. Upwards of 126 million Americans suffer from musculoskeletal problems.

Joe Tsai
Joe Tsai speaks to reporters during a news conference before a WNBA exhibition basketball game in New York.

Joe Tsai has enormous resources to devote to the problem.

Forbes magazine estimates his wealth at $10.9 billion, most of which is tied to Alibaba, the largest online commerce company in China, and one of the largest of its type in the world. He co-founded the company and currently serves as its executive vice chairman.

Tsai, who was born in Taiwan and educated at Yale, also owns the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets, the WNBA’s New York Liberty, and Barclay Center, the Brooklyn arena where both teams play their home games.

In recent years, he and his wife have become well known philanthropists. They donated $50 million last August to support economic mobility in the Black community, notably in Brooklyn. In April 2020, they gave UC San Diego $1.6 million in medical supplies to help fight Covid-19.

The new Tsai gift is among the biggest gifts of any kind ever made by donors who live in San Diego County, and it reflects the desire of some philanthropists to shorten the time it takes to turn lab discoveries into new treatments.

In 2013, La Jolla’s Denny Sanford gave UCSD $100 million to accelerate efforts to find ways to use human stem cells to treat a number of afflictions — a movement called bench to bedside.

Ryan Ka and Matt Kritz, look at the statistics gathered while using the flywheel at UC San Diego
Senior Ryan Ka and Matt Kritz, a senior associate athletic director at UCSD, for review stats from the Flywheel.
(Brittany Cruz-Fejeran/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Clara Tsai told the Union-Tribune in an email, “We started brainstorming around the idea for the Alliance in La Jolla before Covid in early 2020.

“After robust dialogues and engagement with biologists, engineers, trainers, clinicians, and athletes, we decided to focus on defining the scientific principles underlying human performance.”

Some of the research will be led by UCSD’s Sam Ward of the Triton Center for Performance and Injury Science, which will be of interest and consequence to anyone who picks up a golf club.

“Currently you can go to Callaway Golf and somebody will analyze everything in the world about your swing,” said Ward, a professor in UCSD’s departmentsof orthopedic surgery and radiology.

“But they don’t consider what’s going on in your back and in your shoulders or your wrists to help optimize what the right golf swing is for you.

“We’re trying to incorporate not only mechanics but the underlying biology in order to make decisions about what the right equipment is and what the right training regimes and right rehab regimes are for everyone.”

The new alliance also includes Satchidananda Panda, a Salk researcher who has has helped show how such things as circadian rhythms and sleep deprivation can affect the musculoskeletal system.

“Within each of us there is an athlete,” Panda said. “We want to be physically fit and to be free of injuries. That’s why we’re going to be doing research that applies to all of us.”

Nearly 3,200 people are on waiting lists as the campus grapples with more growth