In memory of Selim Zilkha

The visionary entrepreneur and philanthropist has died aged 95.

By Nate Cernosek

Image by Selim Zilkha

Selim Zilkha (Photo courtesy of USC)

A businessman whose many successes have demonstrated a keen sense of innovation, Selim Zilkha has applied this same entrepreneurial spirit to his philanthropy. Through their generous donations to USC, Selim and his wife, Mary Hayley, helped launch one of the world’s leading neuroscience research centers. Selim’s mother and older brother suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, and his personal dedication to finding a better treatment and cure will continue to inspire everyone at the Zilkha Neurogenetics Institute.

“He was a spiritual father figure to me and the most unique person I have ever known,” says Dr. Berislav “Betza” Zlokovic, director of the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute. “He opened so many new doors and helped us understand and find cures for Alzheimer’s disease and other terrible brain diseases such as strokes.”

With leadership gifts from Selim Zilkha and the WM Keck Foundation, the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute opened in 2003 with a mission to unravel the complexities of brain diseases and disorders and rapidly translate discoveries into cures. The Institute’s innovative approach – directly aligning basic scientific research with clinical operations – was ahead of its time.

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“We will forever feel the loss of Selim Zilkha and we will always be grateful to him for all he did to advance neuroscience research,” said Dr. Carolyn Meltzer, dean of the Keck School of Medicine at the USC. “We expect the next five to ten years to be a pivotal time for the development of new targets in the treatment of neurological diseases and disorders, and it is thanks to Selim’s generosity and vision that the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute and the Keck School of Medicine will be among those leading that charge.

The Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute is housed in a six-story, state-of-the-art facility with over 70,000 square feet of laboratory space. Now with more than 30 labs populated by hundreds of researchers, Selim’s gift has helped attract some of this generation’s brightest medical minds to USC. The result is a hub for creativity and world-class neuroscience expertise that is poised to transform the treatment of some of our greatest healthcare challenges.

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“He loved the Institute and the visits,” says Dr. Zlokovic. “The last time I spoke to him, he asked about the Institute, about new breakthroughs, and then he sang his favorite song: ‘Betza, hurry up, Betza, hurry up.’

“He sang that every time,” recalls Dr. Zhen Zhao, director of the Cell Engineering and Regeneration Core at the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute. Dr. Zhao fondly regarded Selim as a

a grandfather figure to whom he could share his dedication to improving care for Alzheimer’s disease. “He wasn’t just pushing us to go faster, he was saying, ‘How can we help you?’ He was very active in the research that we do, and he and his wife Mary were asking great questions and giving us great feedback. And that was so precious to us.

Selim and Mary’s donations also created the annual Zilkha Symposium, which brings neuroscience leaders from around the world to USC. “It’s very important and beneficial for USC,” says Dr. Zhao. “The Zilkha Symposium brings together the best minds and gives young teachers the opportunity to speak and learn from the best experts in the field.”

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In addition to his contributions to the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute, Selim was also a member of the Keck School of Medicine Board of Overseers. His granddaughter Daniela is a graduate of USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

When the Zilkha Neurogenetic Institute was announced in 2002, Selim reportedly said, “I have started many businesses in my life, but my most important legacy is this institute. The Keck School of Medicine at USC is forever honored to be stewards of this immense and consequential legacy, which will represent innovation, excellence, healing, and hope for generations to come.

“He will continue to be an inspiration to me for the rest of my life,” says Dr. Zlokovic. “I will never forget the promise I made to him to do my best to bring us closer to cures for Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.”

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