Baruch Dayan Emet

Joseph Walder, biotechnologist behind first COVID-19 tests and philanthropist, dies at 73

After selling his company in 2018 for $1.9 billion, Walder and his wife established a family foundation supporting the sciences and religious initiatives

Joseph Walder, founder of the leading provider of synthetic RNA and DNA for life-sciences research, who started a private family foundation from the sale of his biotechnology company and was viewed as a “cornerstone” of Jewish education in Chicago and beyond, died on March 26 at his home in Highland Park, Ill. He was 73.

Walder, who was born in Philadelphia and raised in Morton Grove, a Chicago suburb, started his career as a biochemistry professor at the University of Iowa College of Medicine. Soon after, he became an entrepreneur — launching his own company, Integrated DNA Technologies (IDT), in 1987. IDT became the world’s leading provider of synthetic RNA and DNA used in life sciences research and has assisted in several medical advances, including cancer research and virus detection. In February 2020, IDT developed a kit that was the first approved test for COVID-19 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — before the disease had been officially characterized as a global pandemic. The company is a leader in the area of CRISPR, a genetic engineering technique that allows scientists to easily modify the DNA of living organisms.

“His premise for IDT was simple: make science accessible to move discoveries forward,” IDT wrote In a Facebook post announcing Walder’s death. No cause of death was given.

After IDT was acquired by Danaher Corporation for a reported $1.9 billion in 2018, Walder and his wife, Elizabeth Walder, used the profits to start the Walder Foundation, based in Skokie, Ill. The couple was known equally for its contributions to cutting-edge science, as well as within the Orthodox Jewish community in Chicago and worldwide. The couple also supported many orphans, including several whom they adopted.  

“He had a brilliant mind and an open heart,” Rabbi Daniel Raccah of Ohel Shalom Torah Center in Chicago said in a statement.  

Jewish education was paramount to Walder, who started the Kehillah Jewish Education Fund in Chicago, which provides $850,000 per year in financial support to Jewish day schools. He was significant in the founding of Walder Education Center of Chicago, which provides free classes for educators, as well as Walder Science, which provides science education through a Jewish lens. In Skokie, the education pavilion at Torah Umesorah, a network that provides support to 760 Orthodox Jewish day schools, is named for Walder. 

Rabbi Yaakov Robinson, a rabbinic adviser to the Walder organizations, said in a statement, “If the city of Chicago had a cornerstone, the Walder name would be prominent on that list.”

The Walders’ philanthropy extended beyond the Windy City. The couple was instrumental in forming the Chabad Early Childhood Education Network, a division of the Shluchim Office in New York, which provides resources and support to several hundred preschools across the country. Citing Walder’s “Orthodox Jewish faith,” the foundation has also funded several Orthodox and religious organizations in Israel, including Aish Global, Colel Chabad, Ohr Torah Stone, Nishmat and Atida, a group that recruits and trains Haredi women as data science engineers, specifically in the security field. 

In the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in Israel and subsequent war in Gaza, the Walder Foundation committed $3.6 million in grants to Israeli causes, focusing on mental health, security and religious initiatives, as well as general needs. 

Of the emergency grants, $360,000 went to the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago (the city’s federation) for its Israel Emergency Fund to support Israeli groups on the ground, including Leket Israel, Latet Humanitarian Aid and HIAS. The Walder Foundation has also granted $118,000 to the Jewish Agency for Israel to support its Operation Falcon, which brings critical equipment to Israel; $75,000 to the Israeli Center for Addiction, which is working closely with the survivors of the Nova Music Festival massacre; $72,000 to American Friends of Magen David Adom; and $25,000 to the American Friends of Migdal Ohr, which supports the Israeli nonprofit of the same name that works with orphans, children with special needs and at-risk youth.In addition, the foundation has provided an undisclosed sum to Bring Hersh Home, an initiative by the family of Hersh Goldberg-Polin, who has Chicago roots and who was kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7.

“The humble billionaire you’ve never heard of” was how Shalom Goodman, a Wall Street Journal SEO editor who personally knew Walder, referred to him in an essay over the weekend.   

“Dr. Walder was one of the most unassuming men you’d ever encounter,” Goodman wrote. “If I were to show you a lineup of men, you’d never be able to identify the billionaire. He didn’t show off. He didn’t boast. In fact, he lived in quite a modest house considering his means, and drove his famous ole’ Buick for many years.” 

The entrepreneur and philanthropist had battled an undisclosed illness for several years. He is preceded in death by one of his adopted children, Eliyahu, for whom the Walders named two schools in memory of. Walder is survived by Elizabeth, a lawyer who directed an immigration firm in the Chicago area for many years and now leads the foundation as president and executive director, as well as their three children, Moshe Chaim Walder, Kathryn Walder Christensen, and Mordechai Avraham Walder.

eJewishPhilanthropy’s editor Judah Ari Gross contributed reporting.