Levene gives $5m for brain study
Businessman and philanthropist Sir David Levene has donated $5 million to the University of Auckland for its worldleading brain research — one of the largest individual donations in the university’s history.
Sir David, an Auckland property developer and the founder of homewares store Levenes, said he was inspired to gift the money to the Centre for Brain Research because of his family and friends’ struggles with brain diseases.
It appears to be the season of giving for rich-listers. Also this week, New Zealand’s wealthiest man, Graeme Hart, donated $10m to the University of Otago for its dental school. And Starship Hospital received $9m from the family trust of the late Sir Graeme Douglas, who made his money in pharmaceuticals.
Levene, who is publicity-shy, said he was donating to brain research because his late wife Billie had Parkinson’s disease and he had friends whose partners had dementia.
“It’s very difficult to watch someone you love suffer,” he said. “I didn’t put Billie into care but hired nurses and caregivers to look after her around the clock. After 30 years, when she eventually died, I felt very, very lonely.
“Ageing is not easy, so if we can research ways to prevent and treat brain disease to ease suffering that can only be a good thing.”
The donation will establish a permanent head of the Grafton-based Centre for Brain Research. That was part of the appeal for Levene, who strongly believed in succession plans in his business dealings. His family company faltered after being bought by Skellerup in 1994 — partly because there was no one to carry on his family-styled approach to business.
The centre’s director and 40-year veteran of brain research, Sir Richard Faull, said the gift was “transformational” and “a dream come true”.
“When they phoned up and told me they were going to give me $5 million I could not believe it. Because that was just our future looked after.”
Faull said Levene had shown significant foresight in investing in brain research. About one in five New Zealand adults is affected by a brain disorder, most of which are incurable. There are 70,000 New Zealanders with Alzheimers, and there will be 170,000 by 2050.
“Alzheimers and Parkinson’s are caused by multiple factors and there is never going to be an absolute cure. But . . . if you could slow the progression of that disease, you cut the prevalence by 50 per cent because people live longer, are more switched on, and die of something completely different. If you push it right out past their normal lifespan, then you have in fact cured the disease.”
Centre for Brain Research director Sir Richard Faull and Sir David Levene. Faull said the gift was “transformational”.