Detroit entrepreneur pledges $1.875 million to School of Medicine research

Detroit entrepreneur pledges $1.875 million to School of Medicine research
Karen Knopper

Surrounded by cats and dogs and a variety of other animals, Karen Knopper sits in the backroom office of her successful business, Pet Suite Retreat, and recollects when she established the animal boarding facility and day care in 2000. She takes after her father, she said, and shares his loyalty to the city of Detroit.

Although Knopper lived on the East Coast for a time, her mother's death prompted her to leave her successful career in law and move back to her hometown to take up the family business. Her father, Daniel Knopper, owned and managed Danny's Markets — a Detroit grocery store staple. Together, Karen and her father ran the business for many years. When they finally decided to sell the grocery chain, Karen saw the opportunity to open her own company and employ many of the loyal, talented members of the grocery store team.

Now a highly successful animal getaway, Pet Suite Retreat has two locations: Inkster and Troy, Michigan. And although Knopper's father is no longer living, his entrepreneurial and philanthropic spirit lives on through his daughter.

Inspired by her father's connection to both the city of Detroit and the Wayne State University School of Medicine, Knopper is honoring her parents' legacy through the Knopper Family Endowed Chair and the Knopper Family Endowed Research Fund in the School of Medicine. The gifts, totaling $1.875 million, will support leading-edge research endeavors in the Department of Ophthalmology, Visual and Anatomical Sciences.

"I'm doing what my father would have done," Knopper said. "There's just such a need for philanthropy in Detroit."

Close family friends with Harry Maisel, M.B., Ch.B., former chair of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology, Knopper understands the importance of research, especially within the medical field. She feels strongly that the work of Dr. Maisel, carried on by Linda Hazlett, Ph.D. (who chaired that department from 1995 to 2018), will have great implications for the future health and wellness of local and global communities.

"The research that's happening in the basic sciences has the potential to have global ramifications," Knopper said. "And it's important to support the areas where there's a need."

The funds, which will exist in perpetuity, will initially support the pioneering vision research spearheaded by Dr. Hazlett, vice dean of Research and Graduate Programs, the Robert S. Jampel, M.D., Ph.D., Endowed Chair in Ophthalmology and distinguished professor. Through her groundbreaking investigations, Dr. Hazlett has secured future funding for one of the university's longest-running grants. The P30 Core Vision Center grant from the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health was originally secured by Dr. Maisel in the 1980s. Now, with the exciting opportunity brought about by the merger of the Department of Anatomy and Cell Biology with the Department of Ophthalmology, these leading-edge basic science research investigations by multiple investigators will have clinical application through increased translational studies.

Knopper's gift propels the mission shared by Dr. Hazlett, vice chair and Mark Juzych, M.D., MHSA, chair of the Department of Ophthalmology, Visual and Anatomical Sciences. The endowment funds will enrich the robust blending of these two powerhouse departments and help ensure a stronger research partnership between the basic and clinical sciences.

Knopper and Dean Hazlett

"The Knopper Family Endowed Chair and the Knopper Family Endowed Research Fund will have an important impact on the future of the new Department of Ophthalmology, Visual and Anatomical Sciences because it will allow us to put in place succession plans to recruit and retain a specialist in translational research with expertise in infectious diseases. This chair will be the cornerstone of our translational research priorities," Dr. Hazlett said. "As a newly merged department, we will take a basic science approach to translational sciences and ensure continuity throughout the work that we do in Anatomy and Cell Biology as well as our clinical research in Ophthalmology. This endowment will enhance our clinical trials and research in basic sciences with the expectation that it will lead to treatment for debilitating ocular diseases."

Knopper's tremendous gift comes with an understanding that the research may change, medicine will change, but the intention of the research — to better serve health and human wellness — will always remain.

"I am excited to see where the research will go," Knopper said. "I know these endowments will continue to fund this research far into the future, and it's important."

Knopper acknowledges the significance of her gift, but remains steadfast in her humble approach to philanthropy.

"I know this is a special gift," she said, "but the fact that I'm doing it is not a big deal. Someone has to do it. There are so many needs, and if you have the money you should put it where it's needed most."

"Karen is such a wonderful person," Dr. Hazlett said. "I am so appreciative of her gift, and on top of that, she has a marvelous sense of humor, which is very special."

A native Detroiter in the truest sense of the word, Knopper hopes that she has left her mark on the great city that she loves. Her generosity to the School of Medicine, as well as her own entrepreneurial investment in the region, will continue to build up the community in which she has lived most of her life.

Knopper hopes that others will understand the vital importance of philanthropy and establish similar funds. In order to accomplish her vision for the endowment, she created a blended gift, which will establish the research fund now with cash and create the endowed chair through her estate. Such a gift is a creative way to provide the maximum financial impact. 

(October 2, 2018)

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