Utah Fintech Entrepreneur Clay Wilkes And His Wife, Marie, Donate $20 Million For New Climate Center At University Of Utah

Utah Fintech Entrepreneur Clay Wilkes And His Wife, Marie, Donate $20 Million For New Climate Center At University Of Utah

Utah fintech entrepreneur Clay Wilkes and his wife, Marie, are donating $20 million to the University of Utah to launch The Wilkes Center for Climate Science and Policy, the university announced Wednesday. The interdisciplinary center will promote research, study public policy and propose entrepreneurial solutions to “curb and combat the threats that climate change poses to human and environmental health,” the university said in a statement. The gift will be spread over seven years.

“Climate is the single biggest problem that humanity faces,” Wilkes, the founder of Galileo Financial Technologies, told Forbes in an interview. “The solutions are going to be every bit as involved.” The Wilkes Center will encompass faculty and students from across the university, and will regularly award a prize to entrepreneurs with a scalable climate solution.

“Clay and Marie have an intense passion for the environment,” said University of Utah President Taylor Randall, describing how Wilkes told him, “I want this center to be different”–a place that takes action. Randall, the former dean of the university’s business school for more than a decade, wants students to assist faculty with research as well as encourage them to partake in entrepreneurial climate solutions.

Utah residents have lived through some changes in climate already. Wilkes pointed out that the state is downwind from California, Oregon and Washington. “We get the smoke from the fires, and Utahns end up breathing that,” he said. (The three states have suffered some of the biggest fires in history over the past five years.) The water level of the Great Salt Lake has fallen dramatically in recent years; if the lake continues to dry up, the air could turn poisonous due to arsenic in the lake bed becoming exposed and blown by wind storms, as spelled out by The New York Times in an in-depth article in June, calling it a possible “environmental nuclear bomb.” It’s not just the lake that’s lost water; the state’s reservoirs are less than 50% full, says Wilkes.

The University of Utah is on its own journey to reduce its carbon output. It initially pledged to get to net zero carbon emissions by 2050. President Randall moved that goal post a decade earlier, to 2040. “We’d like to make it even quicker,” he says. “That will be where we point this [climate] center.”

The Wilkes’ are funding the donation from their Red Crow Foundation, which they created last year with a $75 million donation. Those funds were made possible following the sale in 2020 of Galileo Financial Technologies to online bank and financial firm SoFi for $1.2 billion in cash and stock. Galileo Financial Technologies, launched by Wilkes—now age 62—in 2000, had raised some funds from friends and family as well as a venture capital round in 2019 from Silicon Valley firm Accel and Utah software entrepreneur Ryan Smith. Wilkes, who owned more than 50% of the company at the time of the sale, likely walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars after taxes. Back in the mid 1990s, Wilkes founded a company called I-Link, which operated in the Voice over Internet Protocol sector, or VOIP, for which Wilkes authored some of the patents. He says that he and his wife plan to dedicate much of their fortune to philanthropy.

Wilkes’ support for the University of Utah comes despite the fact that he is not an alumni; he attended the University of Oregon and then Brigham Young University. But many of the Wilkes’ 10 children have attended the University of Utah, he said. The idea for the climate center came up during a U of Utah football game last fall. Wilkes, who’d been friends with the university’s President Randall for a while, got to talking at the game about what he was working on with his foundation. “He said ‘Let’s work together,’” Wilkes recalled.

Even while building up Galileo Financial Technologies, Wilkes kept the environment top of mind. The company gave $5,000 to employees who purchased electric vehicles, and promised to pay half the monthly electric utility bill for those who switched to some form of renewable energy, like solar panels. “We were trying to encourage awareness,” he said. At its peak, the company had 500 employees, and some did take up his offer. “I would have liked to have seen 499 [do so]. It wasn’t that high.”

Through the Galileo Foundation, Wilkes paid for employees to go on service trips to places like Peru, Colombia and Nepal–for projects like building women’s centers. They weren’t directly climate-related, but “a germinating part of what we were doing,” he explained, describing it as a “global citizen approach to the world.”

Looking ahead, Wilkes hopes the new climate center will spark others to follow suit. “There’s work to do here. It isn’t going to be a single solution,” he said. “I’d love to see every university have a climate related program.”

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