Thinking Outside the Toolbox

Entrepreneur and Caltech engineering alumnus Gary Clinard (BS ’65, MS ’66) has created an innovation fund to advance interdisciplinary research in engineering and applied science at Caltech.

To describe the motivation behind his gift, he uses the analogy of a toolbox:

When I packed up for Caltech, I had a small toolbox. In it, I had trigonometry, algebra, physics, and chemistry, all at the high school level. On my family’s wheat farm in Montana, I also had learned how to weld and run machines. I knew how to take an idea and make something out of it.

At Caltech, I added calculus, physics, rocket propulsion, and other things. And in an electrical engineering projects lab, I learned how to make something with the tools I had been learning.

When I recently came back to campus and visited CAST [Caltech’s Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies], I saw students pulling out their tools and designing robots. I could see the joy in their eyes and read their body language.

This is what my innovation fund is all about. It’s about people who have the desire to take what they’re learning and do something with it.

Clinard’s life story is a testament to what people can accomplish when they use the knowledge that they have in original ways.

Soaking up Knowledge at Caltech

When he was in eighth grade, Clinard met an older boy who had studied at Caltech and who regaled him with tales of research at the Institute. Inspired, Clinard decided he wanted to go to Caltech, too. He became even more determined when the Soviets launched Sputnik I in 1957. As soon as he finished high school, he applied and was accepted into Caltech’s jet propulsion option.

Once on campus, Clinard discovered many other fields that fired his imagination. He took courses on electronics and thermodynamics. He soaked up knowledge in Richard Feynman’s physics classes. “My proudest moment,” he recalls, “was when Feynman said, ‘Gary, you can do physics.’”

“This project has excited and reinvigorated me. It’s the number one thing in my life. I’m so happy to have been able to make this gift.”
- Gary Clinard (BS ’65, MS ’66)

Clinard enrolled in graduate school with the goal of earning a PhD but left Caltech after receiving his master’s degree. He wanted to make things with the tools he had acquired.

Innovation as a Technical Exercise

One of Clinard’s first jobs was with a company focused on autopilot and aircraft swarming technologies. This experience gave him the knowledge, recognition, and contacts he needed to secure a subcontract at Edwards Air Force Base, where he worked with the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center to develop remote control systems for the first space shuttle test flights.

In subsequent ventures, Clinard applied ideas from rocket propulsion to redesign instrumentation for the transportation of liquefied natural gas and devised a way to use differential equations to make more accurate financial forecasts.

“I put it all together as a technical exercise,” he says.

Clinard founded several businesses over the course of his career. The most significant was Monitor Dynamics, which designs, manufactures, and markets security and access-control systems. He established the company in 1979 and built a client list that included aerospace companies, airports, the Department of Defense, the White House, and major banks.

After he sold Monitor Dynamics in 1997, Clinard and his wife, whom he married during his sophomore year at Caltech, enjoyed retirement. They planned to give to the Institute through their estate. However, when Sallie Clinard died in 2017, Clinard rethought his philanthropic strategy. “I wanted to watch my money work,” he says.

High-Impact, High-Reward Philanthropy

The Gary Clinard Innovation Fund provides discretionary resources for early- to mid-stage projects that draw from multiple disciplines in Caltech’s Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS). The goal is to encourage faculty and students to pursue promising ideas that may be too preliminary to attract support from industry or government agencies.

The fund comprises an endowment together with an expendable component that was augmented by the Foster and Coco Stanback CAST Matching Challenge. Monies are awarded by the EAS division chair in consultation with the Gary Clinard Innovation Fund Faculty Committee, which was formed to review researchers’ proposals.

“Amounts may range from $500 for a widget to hundreds of thousands of dollars over a period of time,” Clinard says. “I don’t want to put any blinders on it.”

As an example of the type of project the fund could support, Clinard points to an initiative that combines aerospace engineering, machine learning, and satellite navigation in the effort to develop autonomous flying ambulances that can navigate uncertain weather and traffic conditions in real time.

“This project has excited and reinvigorated me,” Clinard says. “It’s the number one thing in my life. I’m so happy to have been able to make this gift.”

Giving Priorities