Not many people get the ear of the President. Tom Kalil has had that role twice. He sat on the National Economic Council throughout the Clinton administration and was deputy assistant to the President for technology and economic policy, working on projects including the National Nanotechnology Initiative and the BRAIN Initiative to understand nature’s most complex machine. He later spent all eight years of the Obama administration on the Office of Science and Technology Policy. He was deputy director for technology and innovation during the president’s second term.

Kalil has also played prominent roles at the Clinton Global Initiative, UC Berkeley, and the Center for American Progress. Until recently, he worked with multibillionaire Eric Schmidt at the science- and tech-focused Schmidt Futures philanthropic organization. Then in May, Kalil launched and became CEO of Renaissance Philanthropy, which aims to recruit high-net-worth individuals, families, and foundations to fund transformational science, technology, and innovation projects.


Kalil joined Worth for a wide-ranging conversation, which we’ve condensed to focus on the most impactful points.

How would you describe what you’ve been doing in your life?

I think the key is to identify ambitious goals that the nation can and should attempt to achieve and mobilize the resources needed to achieve those goals. I did this for both President Clinton and President Obama, and then, when I left the White House in 2017, I started doing it with Eric Schmidt and [am] continuing to do it now with Renaissance Philanthropy.

Was there a particular event or inspiration that made you want to embark on this course?

Photo of Tom Kalil from Renaissance Philanthropy

I first became interested in these issues because of concerns in the late 1980s that the United States was not investing enough in science and technology and was losing market share—not only in traditional industries like auto, steel, and machine tools but also in high-tech sectors like semiconductors and semiconductor manufacturing equipment. So, one of my first jobs was representing the semiconductor industry in Washington, DC…

In 1992, I went to Little Rock and worked on the issues team of then-Governor Clinton’s presidential campaign. I had the opportunity to write some of his position papers on science and technology. Then, I got a job working for the National Economic Council to help implement those ideas.


Can you think of one or two times when things didn’t work well and what lessons you took from that experience?

One of the things that really hit me was that the federal government’s capacity to invest in science, technology, and innovation is concentrated in a relatively small number of agencies. For national security, we have agencies like DARPA [the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] …

I was convinced that we should be making these types of investments, not just for national security but also for other areas, including education and lifelong learning…So we convinced the president [Obama] that this was a good idea and that we should try it out, but ultimately, we could not get Congress to support it.

Recently [in 2023], they funded the National Center for Advanced Development for Education, NCADE. So one of the things I take from that is that you should never mistake a clear view for a short distance and that just because you have a good idea doesn’t mean it will happen right away.

A lot of your work has been advising very powerful people. Are there moments of huddling with a president and having a close discussion?

An example of ideas that I worked on that the president got behind and got personally involved in was our work on STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] education…And that’s an example of something President Obama got personally involved in…

So, for example, we built a coalition of over 300 organizations that were all committed to helping prepare and recruit 100,000 high-quality math and science teachers.

We have universities, the National Science Foundation, DARPA, a lot of VCs putting money into science, tech, innovation. Why is there a need for an additional funding source?

Suppose a philanthropist wants to try something new. In that case, they don’t need to get 60 votes in the United States Senate…[On the other hand], two early career scientists [Adam Marblestone and Sam Rodriques] pointed out that there was a class of really important science and technology projects that was difficult to do as a venture-backed startup…If you brought it to [a VC], they’d say, “Come back to us in X years when the technology has been de-risked.”


These projects are also challenging to do in an academic setting because they require a larger group of people than you have in a single academic lab…So, what they proposed was to create non-profit science startups. So because they’re philanthropically funded, they can work on things that are difficult to monetize. But because they [have] an organizational structure that looks more like a startup, they can do things that would be very difficult to do in an academic setting…

These are projects that are working to lower the cost of mapping the brain by a factor of 100 [E11 Bio], lowering the cost of single-cell proteomics by a factor of 100 to a thousand [Parallel Squared], developing the technology that we need for MRV—the monitoring, reporting, and verification for ocean-based carbon dioxide removal [[C]Worthy].

We’ve been doing research showing that, among younger, high-net-worth millennials, there’s less interest and less giving towards philanthropy and maybe less faith or trust in its effectiveness. How do you take on that challenge?

I think there’s a particular type of agenda-setting that will inspire philanthropy. And it has several elements. The first is the goal. If I told you what the goal is and you were a philanthropist, your view would be, “Boy, I would view that as an important part of my legacy”…The second is the “why now?” What has changed about the world that makes something previously impossible now within reach? And the third is, “Why is there an important role for philanthropy?” How can philanthropy be catalytic of follow-on funding by either the government or the private sector?

What are some examples of the things that you’re most excited about working on?

One of the projects that is currently being supported is called Forest Neurotech, and it is developing a focused ultrasound on a chip. And this could lead to new minimally invasive brain-machine interfaces that would lead to not only increases in fundamental understanding of neuroscience, but also in our ability to intervene in things like treatment-resistant depression.

I think that more broadly, there’s an opportunity to leverage not only AI, but other technologies as well. So simulation, self-driving labs, large data sets in ways that have the potential to massively accelerate the pace of scientific research…

If you could speak to our readers, what would you ask of them?

Identify some issue that they’re passionate about and try to work with people who have deep expertise in that domain and who can give them creative ideas for what they could do with their philanthropy…

What we’re excited about doing is partnering with those philanthropists and A, finding out what they care about, but B, helping them identify transformational opportunities for them to provide philanthropic support for some of these projects.