In one of the largest gifts in the nonprofit’s history, Ian and Sonnet McKinnon have donated $3 million to expand fundamental research at the Santa Fe Institute.
The gift, deposited in a single installment, will support core SFI science activities, in particular the highly diverse working groups and workshops that are the hallmark of SFI’s collaborative approach to the challenges of complexity — looking for emergent patterns across physical, biological, technological, and social systems.
Following an extended dialogue with SFI President David Krakauer about the Institute’s scientific impact, the McKinnons announced their gift to SFI science.
“Under the leadership of SFI’s President, David Krakauer, SFI has exponentially expanded its reach and scope as one of the world’s leading centers of complexity science," Ian comments. "We are thrilled to build upon our existing partnership with SFI, as we recognize that fostering communication, through the workshops and working groups for which SFI is famous, is one of the more important ways in which the potential for new discoveries can be advanced. The fact that all of this cutting-edge, fundamental research is taking place in New Mexico, the state we love and in which both of us were raised, is indescribably meaningful to us.”
“I was delighted by their decision to support core collaborative activities and the generosity of their gift,” Krakauer says. “Ian and Sonnet are scrupulous philanthropists who want to make every dollar count. Their willingness to support creative, independent research affirms the societal benefit of investigating fundamental questions about the nature of the complex world.”
While SFI researchers are generally motivated by curiosity rather than immediate applications, techniques pioneered at SFI have facilitated advances in drug discovery, ecological conservation, epidemiology, urban planning, and new forms of artificial intelligence.
“The academic freedom and collaborative culture of the Santa Fe Institute draw hundreds of world-class researchers to SFI every year,” says Jennifer Dunne, SFI’s Vice President for Science. “That kind of convening power wouldn’t be possible without support from individuals like the McKinnons.” Dunne also notes that for every dollar spent, the Institute leverages more than four additional dollars from federal grants, foundations, and strategic partners.
SFI hosts more than 30 scientific meetings annually and welcomes more than 800 visiting scientists, scholars, intellectuals, and artists who collaborate with the institute’s 12 resident professors and roughly 15 postdoctoral fellows. The Institute also offers summer schools, internships, and free online courses to train the next generation of scientists in concepts and techniques for studying complex adaptive systems.
In 2015, the McKinnons donated $2.5 million to endow the Institute's education and outreach programs. The McKinnons both hail from New Mexico and are long-time supporters of SFI, the University of New Mexico, and Ian's high school alma mater, the Albuquerque Academy.
Their gift to SFI coincides with another donation from Trustee Chairman Emeritus Bill Miller to support renovations, upgrades, and programming at the Institute’s second campus in Tesuque, NM. The 36-acre estate was donated to SFI in 2013 by Eugene and Clare Thaw, who intended it to serve as a contemplative space to host visiting scientists and scientific meetings. Three-million of Miller’s total gift of $5 million will allow SFI to fully realize the potential of a second campus dedicated to the application and cultural impact of complexity science.
“These synergistic gifts from the McKinnons, the Thaws, and Trustee Emeritus Bill Miller allow us to expand our research ventures further into the unknown,” says Krakauer. “There’s an open creativity that emerges when brilliant, trained, and unconventional minds come together in an environment optimized for collaboration. We’ve seen a cascade of scientific innovations result from our unique workshops and working groups, and with this new material support, we’re banking on some very exciting discoveries in the near future.”
More about the McKinnons
Ian and Sonnet McKinnon both grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Sonnet attended UNM Anderson and graduated with a BBA. Ian graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Occidental College with a BA in Public Policy and received an MBA from Harvard Business School as a Baker Scholar.
Ian is the Founding Partner of Sandia Holdings, LLC, the primary investment vehicle for the McKinnon family and related entities. Prior to founding Sandia, Ian spent nearly twenty years at Ziff Brothers Investments, from which he retired as a Managing Partner. Outside of the office, Ian serves as a trustee of the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he also chairs the Investment Committee. He is a trustee of the Albuquerque Academy and the Santa Fe Institute and serves on the Advisory Board of HighVista Partners, a money management firm in Boston. Finally, he is one of the founding partners of TEAM8, a sports management company.
Sonnet served as National Vice-Chair for the UNM Foundation Board of Directors from 2006-2010. She was also a mentor and board member for REACH Prep, an organization that provides academic and other forms of assistance for underprivileged students who are applying to and matriculating in private preparatory schools. She has served on the board of Greenwich Academy since 2013 and has acted as President of the Board of the Roger Federer Charitable Fund Inc. since 2014.
Ian and Sonnet live in Greenwich, CT with their two children, two dogs, rabbit, and fish.