Criticism sparks over Russia-linked billionaire Yale donor
Yale faculty call for the University to investigate its relationship with Len Blavatnik, a Russia-linked billionaire with ties to the country’s oligarchs and economic dealings.
Russia-linked cash across the world — including at Yale — has sparked controversy and criticism amid the ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
At the University, faculty have drawn attention to Yale’s connection to Len Blavatnik, a billionaire and philanthropist who received his wealth from state-owned aluminum and oil assets after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Blavatnik Fund for Innovation at Yale — an established entrepreneurship fund that supports early-stage companies in the life sciences at Yale — and the Blavatnik Fellowship — which links emerging business leaders with breakthrough innovations across the University — carry the philanthropist’s name. Blavatnik has come under scrutiny for his personal and working relationships with powerful Russian oligarchs as well as his association with the Russian government’s economic dealings.
“As many of us have begun to learn more about Kremlin-associated oligarchs, we’re deeply uncomfortable with being affiliated with these awards,” Aaron Ring, a former recipient of a Blavatnik Fund monetary award and assistant professor of immunology at the Yale School of Medicine, told the News.
Ring, whose March 3 tweet called for the Yale administration to suspend or cancel the Blavatnik Fund, noted that there were ethical concerns surrounding the terms of the award.
He explained from his experience that receiving funding from the program was not solely a “gift”, but rather came with terms. His contract with the Blavatnik Fund – which receives its financial support from donations by the Blavatnik Family Foundation, a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization established by Blavatnik – saw Yale permit significant investment control over new ventures to Access Industries, a privately-held multinational industrial group also led by Blavatnik, who serves as its founder and chairman.
In Ring’s contract, which was obtained by the News, a venture provision declares the University’s commitment to affording Access Industries or other Blavatnik venture funds with an opportunity to invest funds in the award recipients’ entrepreneurial ventures in an amount up to and equal to the amount committed by any other lead investor. Since companies at an earlier stage are historically often undervalued, Ring said, this grants Blavatnik with significant investment power.
When Ring asked for the investment provision to be removed, he was rebuffed.
“It’s a very significant kickback that the University gives to Access Industries – the right to invest in Yale’s most innovative spinout companies,” Ring told the News. “At the end of the day, innovation cannot spring from a corrupt source.”
In a statement to the News, Access Industries claimed that this investment provision has not been exercised during the life of the fund.
“The Blavatnik Fund for Innovation at Yale combines essential funding with development and business expertise,” Access wrote in a statement to the News. “The idea of commercial partnerships is designed to encourage potential sources of capital to bring about biomedical discoveries that create value and benefit society. During the life of the fund, Access has not exercised the provision [cited]. Access has no control over the Yale scientific initiatives selected for support by the fund’s advisory board, comprised for the most part by life science-oriented investors who are Yale alumni. Also, the fund is run independently by Yale’s Office of Cooperative Research.”
In another statement, University spokeswoman Karen Peart said that out of 33 spinoffs that have received investment from the Blavatnik Fund, none have received funding from Access Industries, although Access Industries has funded at least one Yale start-up independent of the Blavatnik Fund.
“Many sponsored-research agreements at Yale and among our peers permit the entity providing the funding with the non-exclusive opportunity to invest in companies that might spin out from the research resulting from the relevant grants,” Peart wrote in an email to the News. “In the case of the Blavatnik Fund, Access Industries has the non-exclusive right to invest in a given spinoff, but not at a level greater than any other investor also interested in the spinoff.”
According to its website, Access Biotechnology, which serves as the strategic investment arm of Access Industries, has invested in two companies founded by Yale professors – Arvinas and Halda Therapeutics. It could not be determined whether either company was connected to the Blavatnik Fund.
Faculty members also criticized the consequences of Yale’s relationship with Blavatnik in the context of increased scrutiny toward Russia and individuals with Russian ties. Physician-professor Howard Forman claimed that the intent behind Blavatnik’s donations is associated with brandishing his reputation.
According to a New York Times article, Blavatnik has been involved in transactions with individuals who have “checkered pasts, deep Kremlin ties and a reputation for corruption.” He served as a major shareholder in the aluminum giant Rusal, which was once sanctioned by the United States and gave up ownership of United Trading Company alongside oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, both of whom sold their shares to three Kremlin-linked investors, Dmitri Pyatkin, Aleksandr Fraiman and Igor Annensky. When he sold his stake in Russian oil company TNK-BP in 2013, it was to Rosneft – which is run by Vladimir Putin’s close ally and a former deputy prime minister Igor Sechin.
“When donors give money in a non-anonymous manner and put their name on something, they are elevating their name,” Forman said.
He added that while the sentiment alone was not problematic, there was a question to be asked – “what [is the University] giving him, and what is he giving us?”
He noted that while the donations received from Blavatnik have been relatively small, the philanthropist’s reputation may be supported by his funds – with the implication that the University becomes vulnerable to harming its name due to his background. He advised that the administration review Blavatnik’s donorship and determine whether his values “align with Yale values.”
Ring also believed that the University’s relationship with Blavatnik poses a concerning dilemma – by attaching the Yale name to the award, he said it creates a sense that the University is endorsing the source of the funds.
Access Industries claimed that Blavatnik and the company do not have any involvement in Russian government affairs.
“Mr. Blavatnik is an American citizen and has been for almost 40 years,” the company’s statement said. “He is not involved in Russian politics or the Russian government and has never been a Russian citizen. He is not now and never has been on any U.S., UK and EU list of sanctioned oligarchs or among those facing economic sanctions. Access Industries, a New York-based company, strictly complies with all U.S., UK and EU laws, rules and regulations.”
Yet Blavatnik has close personal or working relationships with Victor Vekselberg and Oleg Deripaska, both of whom are sanctioned by the United States and are widely considered Russian oligarchs. He has also benefited from Russian economic dealings; for example, he received $7 billion when he sold his stake in TNK-BP in 2013.
When asked by the News about whether an investigation had or would be conducted by the University on Blavatnik’s donorship, Peart told the News in an email that Yale would remain cognizant of sanctions against Russia and Russian individuals.
“As President Salovey states in his response to the invasion of Ukraine, Yale will respect all U.S. government sanctions applicable to Russia and will continue to be aware of the sanctions imposed by other countries,” Peart wrote. “We will not allow individuals subject to U.S. sanctions to make donations to the university or serve on university boards or committees.”
Faculty expressed their hope that the program itself would continue, even if Blavatnik’s name was to be removed.
“I would really hope that an alternative source of funds, maybe even coming internally from the Yale endowment, could be used to continue the very meritorious goals of this program — but from a source of funds that we can really be proud of,” Ring said.
The Blavatnik Family Foundation could not be reached for comment.
The Blavatnik Fund for Innovation at Yale was first established in 2016 with a grant of $10 million.