Philadelphia University's biggest giver is a father of invention

Maurice Kanbar gave more than half the money Philadelphia University hoped to raise in a capital campaign and helped the school far surpass its fund-raising target.
Maurice Kanbar gave more than half the money Philadelphia University hoped to raise in a capital campaign and helped the school far surpass its fund-raising target. (Courtesy Philadelphia University)
Posted: July 28, 2014

When Maurice Kanbar got headaches from drinking alcohol, he came up with a solution: Skyy Vodka, regular vodka minus the impurities that he said gave him headaches.

He also invented the "D-Fuzz-It" sweater comb and a hypodermic needle protector to prevent health-care workers from getting pricked.

But the wealthy San Francisco entrepreneur has another claim to fame: He's the godfather of Philadelphia University. He is the biggest donor in the university's history.

He gave his alma mater a whopping $21 million during its current capital campaign - more than half the amount the university was aiming to raise. As the five-year campaign comes to a close next month, the school has garnered just shy of $60 million - 150 percent of its goal.

The octogenarian graduated from the school in 1952, when it was known as the Philadelphia Textile Institute. Less than a decade later it became the Philadelphia College of Textiles & Science, and in 1999, took on its current name, Philadelphia University.

Kanbar, who studied engineering and chemistry, has 40 patents to his name and is still inventing - look soon for his remedy for the acid in coffee. He serves as a fitting hero for a university that has made entrepreneurship its focus.

"His life is what we're doing," said Stephen Spinelli Jr., president of the 3,600-student university in East Falls, an entrepreneur himself who cofounded Jiffy Lube International. "If we have a lot of mini Maurices running around out there, the world would be a better place."

Kanbar, in a telephone interview late last week, said he believed in the university and the way Spinelli was running it.

"The students are getting the best education for life," said Kanbar, a native New Yorker. "If I had a child and I could send them to Harvard, Princeton, Yale, or Philadelphia University, I would send them to Philadelphia University."

Kanbar occasionally visits the campus to meet with students - he plans another visit this fall. He has employed students to design the packaging for Soofoo, a health food he came up with that is composed of nine grains. Philadelphia University sells it in the cafeteria.

The university named its campus center after Kanbar in 2006, following a $5 million gift. The building's inscription is in cobalt blue, the color of the Skyy Vodka bottle. Its College of Design, Engineering and Commerce also bears his name.

Kanbar said he was born with the mind of an entrepreneur.

"I'm very creative. It's something you have or you don't have," he said.

His first invention was the sweater comb, which he thought of after leaning against a coarse wall at a dude ranch and noticing his sweater fuzz was clinging to the concrete. It went on the market in the 1960s, and a year later, he had already made more than $200,000 off it.

After that came a cataract remover, Zip Notes (sticky notes on roll), another tool to help with varicose veins, cheap eyeglasses, and other devices.

"He bumps into life, and says: 'That's a problem. I should solve that,' " Spinelli said. It's a lesson the university drills students on.

The vodka did not come until 1992. Kanbar says he discovered certain ingredients in vodka, called congeners, gave him a headache, so he made Skyy without them.

"I have two drinks. I don't get a headache anymore," he boasts.

He says he'll soon introduce a new vodka, Blue Angel.

The proceeds from all his new products will go to philanthropy, he said.

"I don't want to buy a yacht. You could not give me a private plane," he said. "If I can help, it's made my day."

Not everything he tried has been a success, something he likes to tell students. He produced the animated film Hoodwinked, which grossed more than $100 million when it was released in 2006. Hoodwinked Too didn't fare nearly as well.

"Young people have to accept failure," he said, "and just be driven to succeed the next time."

Kanbar says he will have given $30 million to the university before he dies. It's the most he has given to any organization or institution, he said.

Spinelli knew how important Kanbar was to the university, so he visited him before he was named president in 2007.

"I needed to get his endorsement," Spinelli said.

Even seven years later, Spinelli said he reports to Kanbar quarterly, a self-imposed requirement.

Kanbar said he is not seeking any more publicity or names on buildings.

He just wants to use the time he has left to help.

Now, about that problem with acid in coffee - look for Kanbar's Caffeo in a store some time in the next six months. Add a few drops to the brew, and there's no need for Tums later, he said.

Also, Caffeo improves the taste of wine, he crows.

"I buy a $6 bottle of wine, I put four drops in, and it tastes like a $25 bottle of wine," he said.

Caffeo's labeling also is a product of Philadelphia University students.

"They do a better job than the guys I pay money to for graphic design," Kanbar said.

Capital Campaign

Philadelphia University's capital campaign at a glance.

Began: 2009.

Ends: September 2014.

Goal: $40 million.

Total raised: $59.38 million.

Biggest donor: Maurice Kanbar, '52, $21 million.

Number of donors who gave $1 million or more: Eight.

Percentage of gifts

from alumni: 50.

Projects funded: Several new and remodeled buildings, new classroom configurations, student projects, recognition grants for professors, and expansion of allied health science programs.

215-854-4693 @ssnyderinq

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