One of the largest philanthropic gifts in Minnesota history will propel the Mayo Clinic’s quest to build a center that uses medical data and scientific rigor to improve health care.
The $67.3 million donation announced Wednesday from Wisconsin businessman Robert Kern and his wife, Patricia, is designated for Mayo’s Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery. The center’s mission will be to design and validate the most efficient medical practices for patient care.
Robert Kern, who came to Mayo for the first time at age 5 in 1930 and received charitable care as the son of a pastor, said in a statement that he hopes the center “will establish new standards for more effective, efficient care — bringing the dream of health care for all to reality.”
The Kerns are retired founders of Generac Power Systems of Waukesha, Wis., which they started in a garage and built into one of the world’s largest manufacturers of power generators. The Mayo center, which was launched two years ago with a $20 million gift from the Kerns, will now bear their name.
The additional funding, Mayo’s second-largest individual gift, will ensure the long-term future of the center, where scientists, analysts and statisticians work with medical staff to try to “connect the dots,” said the center’s medical director, Dr. Véronique Roger.
“Health care is overly fragmented,” Roger said. “To address the fragmentation of care, it requires an engineering approach that looks at how patients flow through the system, how they go from appointment to appointment, and how you establish continuity in the various components of their care.”
Roger, who is a cardiologist, epidemiologist and outcomes researcher, said the project was inherently exciting and important to the Kerns.
“Mr. Kern is an engineer,” she said. “He understood the construct immediately when we first started talking to him.”
The initial donation helped establish the Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery, which is located on two floors of the Harwick Building in downtown Rochester.
One of the center’s early initiatives was to create Optum Labs, a research facility it formed last year with the UnitedHealth Group subsidiary to pool medical and claims data on more than 110 million patients.
With the latest donation, received in August, the center will be able to hire more scientists, expand operations and better recruit and maintain the brightest staff, Rogers said.
The Kerns were in medical appointments and not available for an interview Wednesday, according to a Mayo Clinic spokeswoman.
Kern and his wife launched their business in a rented garage in Wales, Wis., in 1959 and eventually began producing portable generators for sale at Sears, Roebuck and Co. The company became a giant in the manufacture of backup power generators for residential, light commercial and industrial markets.
The couple established the Kern Family Foundation in 1998 with about $60 million after selling off one division of the company. In 2006, they sold the entire business to New York-based CCMP Capital Advisors, a spinoff of JPMorgan Chase, in a deal worth more than $1 billion, according to published reports.
The Kerns’ philanthropy has a history of focusing on systemic change with a national focus, investing in K-12 education reform efforts, undergraduate engineering programs at private schools and tuition scholarships at seminaries around the country.
But they seemed to be generous to their workers as well. In 2006, the Kerns mailed checks to employees that added up to hundreds of thousands of dollars, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, which quoted a factory worker who got a check for $31,000 and said some got as much as $50,000.
Robert Kern is the son of a Baptist pastor and never forgot the free care he received as a child at Mayo, according to Philanthropy Roundtable.
Along with $13 million in earlier donations to fund neuroscience research and education, the Kerns have become one of Rochester-based Mayo’s largest benefactors, with donations now totaling $100 million.
Iowa businessman and philanthropist Richard Jacobson gave a lump-sum donation of $100 million two years ago that went to jump-start Mayo’s cancer-fighting proton beam therapy program in Rochester and Phoenix.
The gifts represent two of the largest donations to Minnesota nonprofits in more than a decade, according to the Journal of Philanthropy.
Mayo Clinic, one of the nation’s top hospitals and the largest employer in Minnesota, is separately in the midst of one of the largest expansions in its history.
The $5.6 billion project, known as Destination Medical Center, is a joint public-private endeavor that will overhaul downtown Rochester as Mayo expands and upgrades its campus. The Minnesota Legislature earlier this year committed spending $455 million for it over the next two decades.
Staff writer Steve Alexander contributed to this report.