The Jerusalem Post
Billionaire Marcel Adams cultivates Israeli brainpower
Canadian Holocaust survivor Marcel Adams, who became a billionaire the hard way, uses some of his vast wealth to help young Israeli scientists excel. Judy Siegel-Itzkovich conducts a rare interview
There are some multimillionaires – even billionaires – who think they can ‘ take it with them,’ and are so addicted to the thrill of amassing money that they are reluctant to share it. But not 89-year-old Marcel Adams – a Romanianborn Holocaust survivor who left Israel after fighting in the War of Independence.
Adams, who took only his empty pockets to Montreal in 1951 and turned them into 100 major North American real estate properties worth around $ 1.1 billion, is a different type. He has long had a clear agenda as a philanthropist for donating money to causes that are important to him, including Israel, Canada, science and medical care, among others. And while he provided some financial assistance to his four grown children and grandchildren, he believes that “ money can provide a good beginning for them to grow up and take responsibility and add something of substance. Then let them worry about themselves... Money has to be earned.” He wanted them to stand on their own feet, and Montreal-born Julian, Sylvan, Linda and Leora have all become successful in their own right.
For example, his eldest – Dr. Julian Adams – is president of research and development and chief science officer at Infinity Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, Massachusetts and previously of Millennium Pharmaceuticals in the same city. An expert in synthetic organic chemistry, Dr. Adams discovered and developed the blockbuster drug Velcade, a proteasome inhibitor for the treatment of cancer, specifically malignant myeloma.
Coincidentally, the lifesaving drug was based on the “ubiquitin system” involving a regulatory protein that breaks down other proteins and has a vital role in many types of cells. This system, which is involved in the immune response, cell death and other processes, was discovered in decades of research by Prof. Avram Hershko and Prof. Aaron Ciechanover of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, who shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (with Irwin Rose) for their 555 findings.
At the dinner for Adams fellows held this month at the Israel Academy of Sciences – which selects fellowship recipients according to strict criteria – Dr. Adams delivered a lecture on his discovery, Velcade.
His sister Linda, a lawyer, is married to McGill University history Prof. Gil Troy (a frequent contributor to the Post, while Sylvan is Iberville president and in day-to-day charge of running the business. Leora is a registered nurse in California. THE FOUNDER of the private real estate empire, Iberville Developments Ltd., Marcel Adams is known in Canada to routinely hang up on journalists, and has only occasionally given interviews to the French-speaking press. But a few days ago in Jerusalem, he was eager to talk to The Jerusalem Post after hosting many Adams Fellowship winners – a total of 59 of the country’s leading young brains who have received $ 100,000 stipends to pursue their doctor studies in Israel for four years. And at 89 – his 90th birthday will be in August – the philanthropist looked younger and more vigorous than he did five years ago during the Post interview that marked the founding of the Adams Fellowships. THE ANTI-SEMITIC regime in Romania during the Holocaust interrupted his studies, triggering a lifelong quest for learning and a zest for life. Adams was an active member of Hanoar Hazioni in Bucharest and, when the Nazis took over, survived forced labor between 1941 and 1944, food shortages and arbitrary harassment by the authorities.
He regrets that he never attended university, as he never had the opportunity to get enough of a formal education. After escaping from a labor camp to Turkey, he arrived in then-Palestine and fought for the young State of Israel’s existence. Then he left for Canada to try his luck as a tanner of animal skins, like his father.
But utilizing natural wheeling-and-dealing talents and business acumen that one cannot acquire in college, Adams bought animal hides by phone in Quebec City, and four years later he began to purchase real estate there. He made a 70 percent profit on his first apartment building. Eight years after his arrival in Canada, he had already opened his first in a long series of shopping malls. And in 1953, he married his beloved Annie, who died some years ago.
After World War II, Adams told The Post, he noticed that there was a vast number of Canadian farms that “ nobody wanted.” He focused on them, purchasing them first with bank credit and then with his earnings, and turned them into lush and spacious suburbia, with shopping malls that attracted post-war Canadians. Iberville also owns office buildings and factories as well as residential property.
He preferred to rent out properties rather than to sell, and reportedly even rented his own office space from others because it was “ cheaper” than what he could have charged someone else for his own property. ALTHOUGH HE didn’t stay long in Israel, he regards himself as an ardent Zionist, and the country is always close to his heart; he said that because it accepted him after the Holocaust, he feels he is in the country’s debt. “ The easy way would have been to hand over a check. I wish to pay back my debt from 1944 to the Jewish people, who gave me a new identity and hope to build from the ashes of Europe.”
Despite his age, he flies here regularly once or twice a year to meet the new crop of Adams Fellows and hear their explanations of their scientific work. With his late wife Annie, he also established the Adams Institute for Business Management Information Systems at Tel Aviv University and endowed TAU’s Adams Super Center for Brain Research, which also get his attention. Among many other donations in Montreal and elsewhere, they also funded an MRI center at the city’s Jewish hospital.
Asked why he chose to endow scientific fellowships in Israel rather than donate university buildings, Adams explained: “I could have, but I figured that others would give buildings. So I decided to do a program. I wanted to give more and help scientific research,” he said in English, although he well understood a tribute in Hebrew delivered at the Israel Academy dinner by a former fellow who is now doing her postdoctoral work.
He added with an impish look that he hoped our interview would not lead to a shower of requests for donations to various charities, as he already knows what his favorite charities and fields are.
The winners of the much-needed fellowships for up to four years of doctoral research and tuition are regarded as some of Israel’s future stars in the natural sciences, mathematics, computer science, life sciences and engineering.
“Israelis have brains, and are using them for advancing humanity,” Adams said. “I am sorry to read that some politicians” accused of bribery and other crimes, are using their brains for harmful purposes. Still, he said, “the future of Israel is great. The leaders of Israel have to be convinced that science is the future.” ONE OF the benefactors of Adams’s largess is the new Adams fellow Itai Roffman, a 27-year-old University of Haifa doctoral student who works with the famed Dr. Jane Goodall investigating the chimpanzee family and the evolution of prehistoric man. His doctoral work focuses on the theory of evolution of prehistoric man, showing that chimpanzees are the “ brothers” of Homo sapiens and arguing that they should be “ included in the family.”
Roffman said humans and chimpanzees share 94% of their genes. He even succeeded in teaching his moderately retarded 23-year-old brother Orr to communicate and express himself by observing and being exposed to chimpanzees and using a keyboard comprised of 450 keys.
Avital Suissa, who comes from a haredi family of 11 children in northern Jerusalem, is another Adams fellow. The only one of her siblings who continued to higher education after high school, she is conducting research on a cure for diabetes at the Hebrew University. After her studies as a lab technician in a special program for haredi women at Hadassah College, it was suggested to Suissa that she get practical experience in a research lab. Her brilliance quickly shined through, and she embarked on her master’s studies, switching to a direct-track PhD two years ago. Now she doesn’t have to worry about working off-campus to pay her tuition and rent, thanks to Adams.
She is the first master’s degree student in the world to have presented her work at the prestigious US National Institutes of Science.
Klim Efremenko, who is doing his doctorate in computer science at TAU, is another Adams fellow. Born in 1982 in Kazakhstan, he came on aliya 15 years ago. A mathematics enthusiast from early childhood, he won his city’s math tournament at the age of nine. By 10th grade, he had completed his matriculation in the subject; at the age of 17, he was accepted as a full-time student in the Excellence Program of Haifa’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.
All the fellows regard Adams as a benevolent grandpa, and will be happy in the years – until 120 – to come to report to him on their scientific progress.