The founder and CEO of a Connecticut data-protection company is giving Rochester Institute of Technology $50 million, the largest donation in the university’s history and one of the largest ever in the Rochester region.
Austin McChord, 32, a 2009 graduate of RIT and a member of the university’s board of trustees, founded Datto in the basement of his father’s office building in Norwalk, Conn., before he graduated from RIT and grew it to a worth of more than $1 billion. The company was just acquired by Vista Equity Partners and merged with Autotask Corp. to create a new company, which McChord will head as CEO. Datto has about 1,400 employees in nine countries, including about 200 in Rochester.
“My success today would not have been possible without my time at RIT,” McChord said. He graduated from RIT in 2009 with a degree in bioinformatics.
In light of the historic nature of the donation, RIT invited the public, students, parents and other members of the community to attend the announcement on the Henrietta campus Wednesday afternoon, and also made arrangements to have it streamed live. More than 4,000 people watched the announcement online, while perhaps 200 packed into the Simone Center for Student Innovation to hear the announcement firsthand and celebrate with cowbells and other hoopla.
When RIT President David Munson made the actual announcement, it was greeted by gasps and other exclamations, clapping, cowbell ringing and a standing ovation.
The donation is larger than any other given to a local education institution; next largest would seem to be the $30 million donated by Edmund A. Hajim to the University of Rochester in 2008. The only larger donation in general that observers could recall is the $61 million that brothers Richard and Robert Sands and their mother, Mickey Sands, donated to the Rochester Area Community Foundation in 2016, creating the Sands Family Supporting Foundation. The Sands are the family behind beverage giant Constellation Brands, founded as Canandaigua Wines by the late patriarch, Marvin Sands.
At RIT, no prior single donation has exceeded $14 million. The largest cumulative donation to RIT to this point has been $34.5 million from James S. Gleason and the Gleason Family Foundation, representing the family behind the Rochester company that has made gear-making machinery for more than a century.
McChord’s donation has been designated for two major areas:
- $30 million for programs and facilities to encourage creativity and entrepreneurship at RIT, including $17.5 million to launch a Maker Library & Innovative Learning Complex of the Future. The new building will connect RIT’s Wallace Center (the current library) and the Student Alumni Union. Included are funds for equipment, faculty positions and scholarships, such as new “Entrepreneurial Gap Year” fellowships.
- $20 million to bolster RIT’s study of cybersecurity and artificial intelligence, primarily in its College of Computing and Information Sciences. The funds will expand facilities and establish endowments for faculty and graduate students.
“A gift of this magnitude will help propel RIT from excellence to preeminence,” said Munson. “We are so proud of our alumnus Austin McChord. He was passionate about his idea and he turned it into a big success. This embodies the creative element that we want to further highlight at RIT. Every student can be involved in creating things that never before existed, and then putting the result into play. His investment in RIT will help our students and faculty make their mark on the world.”
McChord said former RIT President Bill Destler, who is a friend, inspired him to make the donation.
“My goal with this gift is two-fold,” said McChord. “First, is to help make more resources available to students, alumni and the community at-large to create, build and innovate for the future. But it’s also to help recognize those who helped you along the way.”
Destler, who retired June, helped give the background about how the donation came to be before Munson announced the size of the historic gift.
“I am thrilled that Austin McChord has chosen to share his success with RIT in the form of this most generous gift,” Destler said. “It’s truly been a pleasure to get to know him and to watch his business grow, internationally as well as right here in Rochester, and I’m excited to see what the future holds for him as well as for the programs and projects this gift will support.”
McChord and Destler said the gift had been in the works for a couple of years, but was waiting to be executed when Datto was acquired, providing capital McChord could donate. ” ‘What are you going to do with all this money?,’ ” McChord recalled Destler asking. When McChord told Destler that he wanted to cap the donation at $50 million should the sale be especially fruitful, he said Destler looked a little disappointed.
“Until this moment, (heading) down in the elevator, I had no idea it would be such a big deal,” McChord said.
McChord has remained an active part of RIT, frequently serving as a speaker at various events, including the 2017 commencement. His company sponsored RIT48, an entrepreneurship competition, and he has been a mentor for RIT’s SummerStart program for entrepreneurs who want to develop their business concepts.
Datto was the first company to take advantage of the Start-Up NY program in the Rochester area in 2014, sharing space at RIT’s Downtown Center at 40 Franklin St. It has expanded to house some of its employees at The Metropolitan, formerly known as Chase Tower. McChord said the Rochester part of the company will continue along the same path it has been on since 2014, and the company will continue to be called Datto.
RIT gave McChord a gift in appreciation for the donation, using part of his commencement speech as a suggestion. In that speech, which Munson played at the press conference, McChord told graduates that he began Datto hoping to sell it for $100,000 so he could buy an Audi sports car like the one the comic book character Iron Man drives. The college presented him with a toy Audi large enough for a toddler to ride in and painted RIT orange. Munson said he hoped it would fit in with the wall of Legos, ball pit and other toys in place at Datto.