Dynamic Duo: Movie Magic & Capital Insight
Kevin Kimberlin and Joni Steele Kimberlin share a passion to make the world a better place. Here, in the second of our three-part series on powerful couples doing amazing things, we sit down with the pair that is influencing everything from female empowerment to the state of health care to major medical research
Photograph by: Visko Hatfield
The Kimberlin family is playing a game of pickup baseball in the yard of their Belle Haven home. It’s Mom plus three kids, ages seven to twenty one, against Dad, yet he’s still giving them a run for their money. Though you wouldn’t guess it from this rough-and-tumble scene, Joni Steele Kimberlin and Kevin Kimberlin are the quintessential dynamic duo. Joni is an independent filmmaker producing meaningful movies through her Greenwich company, Cowgirl Films. Kevin is chairman of Spencer Trask, a venture capital firm. He has made a career of recognizing technological and medical innovations in their early stages.
Their combined philanthropic endeavors include supporting the Greenwich Audubon Society, where they founded its Kimberlin Nature Education Center, the Bruce Museum, the Boys and Girls Club, the David Lynch Foundation, Harvard University and Yaddo. With a proclivity for throwing rockin’ parties and hiking the trails at Audubon and Watertown’s Leatherman Cave, the Kimberlins are at once grounded, spiritual — and unexpectedly cool.
Behind the Camera
Kevin and Joni hail from Indiana families with strong Midwestern values. Joni is an outspoken blonde übermom and filmmaker who is known for mixing philanthropy with fun. Cochairing the Audubon Flower Power Dinner Dance a few years ago, for instance, the Kimberlins got into the 1960s groove; Joni dressed in a vintage flower-child outfit and Kevin decked himself out as Sgt. Pepper.
The pair went on their first date when Joni was eighteen, and she recalls, “I decided I was going to marry him,” though they dated on and off for the next ten years. “At twenty-eight,” Joni says, “I was ready to get married, and I said, ‘fish or cut bait.’ We married shortly after that. And within a year, we had our first child, Genevieve.”
After the baby, Joni left a career in publishing behind, but not her passion for learning. She took classes at the New School and New York University in video and documentary production and began a fifteen-year study of scriptwriting. Soon, she began freelancing. Her first independent project, about performance art, was shown at festivals, but never broadcast. Her next project, Elizabeth Winthrop, All the Days of Her Life, has been broadcast numerous times on PBS in Connecticut and in major national markets.
She is now wrapping up Get Real! Wise Women Speak, a feature-length documentary that profiles extraordinary older women who use their wisdom and experience to benefit the world. The film features interviews with a diverse group of women, including Nobel Laureates Betty Williams and Jody Williams; actress Jane Fonda; entertainer Della Reese; editor Susan L. Taylor; Governor Jodi Rell; author Marianne Williamson; Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo; poet Nikki Giovanni; and oceanographer Sylvia Earle. Over the past year, Joni traveled across the United States and India to interview these women. Her goal? “To celebrate this extraordinary time in a woman’s life and create a counterpoint to the youth-obsessed media that bombards women day after day,” she says.
She’s also done considerable volunteer work on the board of the Boys and Girls Club, on benefits for the Bruce Museum and on Greenwich Country Day School’s auction committee. She’s collaborated on the YWCA Old Bags Luncheon, thrown a big party for the Avon Theatre in Stamford, worked on behalf of the David Lynch Foundation and campaigned to help rid Long Island Sound of hypoxia. Two years ago, she was honored with the prestigious Spirit of Greenwich award from the YWCA.
Big Business, Big Heart
If Joni sounds like a dynamo, wait until you meet Kevin, a youthful visionary, dressed casually in jeans and vintage Led Zeppelin T-shirt. An all-American boy, Kevin has led more lives than most. His childhood was “centered around baseball, homework and outdoor adventures” until he saw Eric Clapton play with Cream and turned his focus to music.
“Like 50,000 other boys, I picked up a guitar. But unlike some, perhaps, I had a mother who encouraged my music to the extreme. Mom defended me even as the band practice volume drove my family out of our house.” Winning “battle of the bands’ allowed them to open the very first” rock festival in Indianapolis history. “That initial moment of glory, in retrospect, was the apex of my musical career,” says Kevin, “but pursuing the dream took my band from Indy to New York City in the 1970s. Living the starving artist life to the hilt, we played the punk rock scene with KISS, Blondie, The New York Dolls and numerous forgettable acts.”
“Soon, the starving part got real old,” he says with a laugh. “So I sent myself to college with a vengeance, attending five colleges in six years.” Kevin graduated from Indiana University and got a master’s degree from Harvard, then, in one of those pivotal moments, “My first job at Paine Webber put me on the road show for Genentec — with Herb Boyer and Bob Swanson packaging big science for Wall Street. After that, starting healthcare companies became one of the twin arcs of my career.”
This ambition led to a stint at a venture banking firm, where he “lucked out” by writing a report on the IPO for Dr. Gordon Gould, who had invented the laser as a Columbia student and spent thirty years litigating for its patent. “We funded his battles, helping the little guy triumph against major corporations.”
This experience led him to the other arc of his career — starting communications companies to empower individuals. “The first opportunity for that was structuring the financing for Peter Erb, a radio engineer whose low-cost cellular start-up promised phones for people without any. That joint venture is now called Vodafone. Today, with ventures serving 625 million people, it is, by market cap, the largest phone company on earth. These formative experiences had shown me that one person pursuing a big mission can change the world.”
Kevin is also the chairman of Spencer Trask & Co., a venture capital firm powered by “creative radicals with soul.” On the tech side, he and his firm have cofounded Ciena Corporation, which created technology that was a major catalyst to the Internet explosion, making it “one of the biggest jackpots in the history of venture capital,” according to The Wall Street Journal.
On the medical side, Forbes magazine noted that Kevin distinguished himself by backing “obsessive missionaries” introducing major new medical technologies to the world. In 1986, Kevin cofounded The Immune Response Corporation with polio-vaccine-hero Dr. Jonas Salk, to work on creating an AIDS vaccine that has yet to score approval. The IPO allowed Kevin to start his next company, Myriad Genetics with Nobel Laureate Walter Gilbert. The company caused a stir when it discovered the breast cancer gene, BRCA1. Kevin says, “Since starting, we have helped over 100,000 women understand their risk of developing breast cancer. James Watson, who discovered the helix structure of DNA, commented, ‘There is no more exciting story in medical science.’ ”
When founding the first stem cell therapy company, Osiris Therapeutics, Kevin side- stepped ethical controversy by using adult stem cells. Proud of this radical regenerative therapy, Kevin says, “We are on the verge of the world’s first stem cell approval for the rare and deadly Graft-versus-Host disease [which effects bone marrow transplant patients]. This is the first of dozens of applications that could also help thousands suffering from conditions ranging from juvenile diabetes, torn meniscus, even regenerating heart muscle after a heart attack.”
In 1999, Kevin helped a Harvard friend get Health Dialog, a new healthcare initiative, launched and funded. It recently sold for $775 million. As Health Dialog inverts the paradigm from ‘doctors know all’ to ‘the in-charge patient,’ we become informed allies in our own treatment. “Making an impact on healthcare quality and costs is one of our biggest challenges and, therefore, one of the great opportunities of our time,” says Kevin. “Today Health Dialog serves 24 million with evidence-based medicine — some of the most important and comforting knowledge you may ever receive. That number will grow to 100 million in the next five years,” he predicts.
How does it feel to be a major part of these innovations? “It’s a lot like the feelings a parent has,” Kevin explains. “Amazement, pride, and this type of work gives those of us involved a sense of making a difference. But also, like many parents, I sometimes feel overwhelmed. The endless ocean of things that can and should be done just keeps coming.”
When he’s not working or contributing to his favorite causes, Kevin can be found in his studio, composing music, or outdoors, enjoying his children. This month he is due to release an album called “Lovelution — the Evolution of Love,” his personal take on the highs and lows of boy meets girl. On top of composing, Kevin also plays in a neighborhood rock band. “We have a blast at the Belle Haven Club each November,” he says. “It turns out that right brain musical work helps me understand the more abstract ideas of new ventures.”
With all the balls they have in the air — work, passions, kids — Joni explains that their partnership works because “we both stay excited about life, very engaged with our interests, learning new things, exploring, growing.”