Wertheim Foundation pledges $50 million to UC Berkeley Optometry

September 9, 2021
By: Public Affairs
A photo shows a child sitting in an exam chair. An optometrist stands over the child, examining their eye.
The Dr. Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Family Foundation has pledged $50 million to UC Berkeley Optometry as part of a 10-year, $100 million investment that will expand the school’s ability to train the next generation of optometric physicians and keep the school at the forefront of research and discovery in eye care. (Elena Zhukova photo)

The University of California, Berkeley, today announced that the Dr. Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Family Foundation has pledged a historic $50 million to the UC Berkeley School of Optometry, the largest gift ever to be received by a school of optometry in the country. This transformational commitment constitutes the lead gift for a 10-year, $100 million investment that will expand the school’s ability to train the next generation of optometric physicians and educators to serve as leaders in the spectrum of primary and preventative health care.

The funds will be used to elevate the school’s training and research programs through an investment in innovative models of vision care, teaching and discovery. To honor the landmark gift, the school will be named the Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry and Vision Science.

“We believe this gift, through the vision and foresight of Dr. Wertheim, will not only transform Berkeley Optometry, but will be transformative for the entire profession,” said John Flanagan, dean of Berkeley Optometry. “The gift will not only strengthen the professional and research training capabilities of the school and its programs but will enable new models of continuing professional education that will influence and elevate the profession of optometry.”

The gift will support new clinical and educational facilities, the expansion of the school’s clinical network and residency training, a focus on new initiatives for children’s vision, the creation of endowed support for both professional and research graduate students and a new Vision Science Institute to help unite vision research at UC Berkeley. These initiatives will be supported by the creation of two new, endowed, Chancellor’s Chairs; the Herbert Wertheim Chair in Neuro-Optometry and the Nicole Wertheim Chair in Pediatric Optometry.

“This transformational investment will allow Berkeley to rededicate itself to innovation, entrepreneurship, scientific research and technological leadership in optometry and vision science, from vision care and the profession of optometry to the impact of vision research and expanding the profession’s reach to broader populations,” said Chancellor Carol Christ. “We are tremendously grateful to Dr. Herbert and Nicole Wertheim for this gift and for their shared vision of making life better for people around the world.”

Wertheim is known for his work as an optometrist, entrepreneur, philanthropist and inventor. He is founder and CEO of Brain Power Incorporated (BPI), which manufactures ophthalmic instruments and chemicals, and was the first to discover and manufacture a variety of sun filtering, UV-blocking and therapeutic eyeglass tints that can help improve vision performance, prevent cataracts, and reduce retinal and corneal deterioration.

“Optometry is America’s first line of defense for the prevention of blindness. I’m excited about what we’re going to do at Berkeley over these next years, because it’s going to transform patient expectations of vision care and service to help prevent those that would have become blind without care and help protect those from accidental eye injuries worldwide,” Wertheim said. “We hope to expand the practice of optometry so that we’re able to provide timely and expanded patient care and outcomes to America’s communities and to the worldwide population.”

A focus on children’s vision and the future of optometry

A photo of a woman and a man standing together inside a home
Herbert Wertheim (right) and his wife Nicole have a clear commitment to support public education. (Paul Barnett photo)

Wertheim and his wife, Nicole, have a daughter who was born prematurely, a condition that can lead to loss of vision or blindness without treatment. They also have a 14-year-old granddaughter, who at age 7, developed type 1 diabetes. For several personal reasons, the couple remains passionate about improving vision care for children. Their daughter and granddaughter had early optometric care and now both enjoy excellent vision.

In addition to founding a new endowed Nicole Wertheim Chancellor’s Chair in Pediatric Optometry, the gift includes funds to create a new integrated model clinic for children’s vision, as well as to help establish Berkeley Vision CURE, a national and international initiative that will work to get eyeglasses to all children who need them.

The Wertheims’ emphasis on children’s eye health and vision care will ensure new standards of care for pediatric optometry and pave the way for an integrated approach to enhancing children’s vision health for education and daily life, Flanagan said.

“One reason that children fail to thrive in early educational environments is an inability to see — a lack of corrected vision — and that can go on to affect their success in the rest of their lives,” Flanagan said. “Here at Berkeley, we are trying to devise a road map to improve children’s vision here and around the world, and this investment will be a catalyst for that process.”

Berkeley Optometry is committed to expanding eye care access for both children and the school’s surrounding community, Flanagan said. The school’s clinic already serves approximately 80,000 patient visits each year from both the campus and the community, and the gift will support the school’s mission to expand access to quality eye care through the establishment of a network of collaborative clinics and children’s hospitals.

Christina Wilmer, clinical professor, and associate dean for clinical affairs at Berkeley Optometry, said the gift will be a “game-changer” in helping the school to reach the next level in clinical training and patient care.

“We have such a great clinical program — we have the expertise, we have the students, we have the interest, and we have the patient-need. This gift is going to allow us to expand and innovate in a way that will improve training and help us continue to have the best outcomes,” Wilmer said.

In addition to its clinics and training program, Berkeley Optometry is also home to a vast array of research in vision science, with faculty, postdoctoral fellows and graduate students working at the forefront of fields including optogenetics, neurodegenerative diseases, gene therapy and virtual and augmented reality.

To support Berkeley researchers in creating the knowledge and techniques that will drive the future of optometry, the gift will support endowed funding for graduate students as well as a new endowed Herbert Wertheim Chancellor’s Chair in Neuro-Optometry, which will focus on preventing blindness and enhancing eye health. It will also help fund the formation of the new Herbert Wertheim Vision Science Institute, which will serve as the home for vision research at UC Berkeley.

The Wertheims founded the Herbert and Nicole Wertheim Family Foundation in 1977 with the motto “making life on earth better,” and became members of the Giving Pledge in 2015, joining some of the world’s leading philanthropists in committing to give away at least half of their wealth. Wertheim is a graduate of the University of Florida and Southern College of Optometry and has been awarded honoree M.D., D.Sc. and Doctor of Technology degrees representing 55 years of vision research and more than 100 patents and trademarks. He has written that he wishes to give the bulk of his philanthropy to public education.

Wertheim, a renowned investor and 2011 Horatio Alger honoree and medal recipient, and his wife Nicole have a clear commitment to support students within public education through numerous scholarships, believing that such an investment provides a powerful “multiplication and amplification factor.” This is a philosophy shared by Berkeley Optometry, said Flanagan.

“This donation is to also celebrate our eye care and science company Brain Power Inc (BPI) that Nicole and I founded 50 years ago, and to show appreciation for, and honor the dedication of our worldwide employee teammates, scientists and our tens of thousands of dedicated customers, and associates who have made Brain Power Inc. (BPI) successful,” Wertheim said.

The Herbert Wertheim School of Optometry and Vision Science will join a family of other institutions named in honor Dr. Wertheim’s lifetime achievements and philanthropy, including the Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University; the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering at the University of Florida; the Nicole Wertheim College of Nursing and Health Sciences and the Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health and Human Longevity Science at UC San Diego.

“Berkeley Optometry looks forward to honoring the Wertheim’s astonishing and transformational gift and working in partnership with Dr. Wertheim and his team to ensure his vision for advancing the optometric profession and enhanced preventative eye care becomes our reality,” said an optimistic Flanagan.