UF donor's $10M to go long way


J. Crayton Pruitt Sr., left, is thanked by University of Florida College of Engineering Dean Pramod P. Khargonekar in St. Petersburg on Tuesday after UF President Bernie Machen announced that Pruitt has committed $8 million to UF on top of the $2 million he gave five years ago.

The Associated Press
Published: Wednesday, January 18, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 17, 2006 at 11:18 p.m.
J. Crayton Pruitt Sr. may be forever indebted to the Shands doctors who gave him a new heart 10 years ago, but the 72-year-old St. Petersburg surgeon has gone a long way toward paying back the University of Florida with a donation of $10 million.
At a news conference in St. Petersburg on Tuesday, UF President Bernie Machen announced that Pruitt will give $8 million to the department of biomedical engineering, in addition to the $2 million he gave five years ago. Taken together, the $10 million gift is the largest ever given to the College of Engineering, and ranks among the largest single contributions ever made to the university.
"My expectation is that the University of Florida is going to have one of the most outstanding departments of biomedical engineering in the entire world - maybe the best," said Pruitt, reached by phone before Tuesday's press conference.
In recognition of his support, UF is naming the department for Pruitt, marking the first time the university has named a department for any individual.
Pruitt is considered a pioneer in the world of biomedical engineering, working in the area before scientists and educators really had a name for it. He's most known for co-inventing the Pruitt-Inhara Carotid Shunt, a device used to carry blood to a patient's brain while a surgeon clears clogged arteries.
Pruitt has been the chief benefactor for UF's fledgling biomedical engineering program, which was founded in 2002. Though he did not attend UF - he has two degrees from Emory University - Pruitt has family ties to Gainesville. His son, J. Crayton Pruitt Jr., went to medical school at UF and now practices medicine in Tampa. Pruitt Sr.'s three children all sit on the board of directors of the J. Crayton Pruitt Foundation. The foundation, a private nonprofit organization, is funding $4 million of the gift and gave the $2 million five years ago.
The $10 million will be endowed, meaning the department will only get 4 percent of the funds each year. By using just 4 percent annually, the funding is theoretically "permanent," because university investments help reclaim whatever money is spent. If the state matches the funds dollar-for-dollar, as UF officials expect, the department will receive $800,000 each year from the endowment.
Pruitt says he has no specific requests for what UF should do with the gift, other than to help put the department on the map as a world leader. After his heart attack, Pruitt said he learned the crucial role that biomedical engineering plays in life-saving treatments and he wants to see research furthered in that arena.
Biomedical engineering involves the fusion of engineering and medical disciplines, which are both employed in the creation of technologies used in health care. William Ditto, chairman of UF's department of biomedical engineering, said Pruitt's gift will help the university engage in more "high gain/high risk" research that stands to bring in massive revenue in future federal grants and patents. A gift the size of Pruitt's gives faculty the flexibility to pursue research in emerging areas that may not bear fruit, but could also prove revolutionary, Ditto said.
"That's what we're looking for, that 1-out-of-10 idea that's going to change the world," he said. "That venture capital model is how we're going to use the money."
Ditto says he anticipates the $10 million gift will leverage into "at least" $1 billion worth of discoveries from the department over time.
Though UF has named buildings and endowed professorships for big donors, departments have never been named for an individual and naming colleges for individuals is rare. Only two colleges, the Warrington College of Business and the Levin College of Law, are named for individuals at UF. The law school was named for Fredric Levin after he donated $10 million in 1999, and Alfred Warrington was honored for cumulative gifts to the UF Foundation, the university's private nonprofit fund-raising arm. Warrington has asked that his total gifts to the UF Foundation not be made public.
Pruitt's gift ranks among the highest-ever single contribution received by UF. The largest single donation ever made to the UF Foundation since its 1934 founding was $15 million from the late Evelyn F. and William L. McKnight, for whom the McKnight Brain Institute is named.
So how do you ask a man for $10 million? Gradually. Pruitt has been an active observer of the department's progress since its inception, sitting on the advisory board and meeting frequently with Ditto and the dean of UF's College of Engineering, Pramod Khargonekar. Khargonekar has been dean since 2001, and one of his first meetings was with Pruitt and his daughter. It was during a recent meeting that Khargonekar popped the question, detailing the reasons that $10 million would ensure the desired growth of the department.
"(Pruitt) was like 'OK, I can do that,' " Ditto recalls. "If you ever want to see a dean's jaw drop, I wish we had a video of that."
The college has already rolled out the red carpet for Pruitt. By Tuesday afternoon, a picture of Pruitt's face had been worked into the college's masthead on UF's Web site. "This is not an exaggeration that it's a transformational gift," Khargonekar said Tuesday.
Ditto assures the gift won't be used to balance his annual budget, which is about $3.6 million after grants and state funding are combined. Instead, he says it will be used to encourage research and further develop the curriculum for the department, which presently offers master's and doctorate degrees.
Ideally, biomedical engineering faculty will create technologies that spawn start-up companies, thereby moving UF technology out of the laboratory and into the marketplace, Ditto said. That's exactly what happened when researchers in the college started working on software designed to predict and even prevent seizures in epileptic patients. Optima Neuroscience, a private start-up based in Gainesville, was founded about two years ago to develop the researchers' technology.
"Within two to four years, we'd like (the technology) to be standard of care," said Paul R. Carney, the company's chief medical officer and associate professor of biomedical engineering at UF.
The Optima Neuroscience project is just the kind of thing Ditto wants to see his faculty doing, which he said Pruitt's donation makes possible.
"We want to lead the field," he said. "We want to create something new."
Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064.

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