Logo: University of Southern California

Prem Natarajan Named Inaugural Keston Executive Director

Visionary and inspiring gift to the USC Information Sciences Institute (ISI)
By: Sam Corey & Natalia Velez
February 02, 2016 —
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Prem Natarajan (left) and Michael Keston (right). (Photo/Steve Cohn)

In a joyous celebration and dinner at the California Club, Prem Natarajan was installed as the inaugural Keston Executive Director of the USC Information Sciences Institute (ISI). The event was attended by faculty and staff from USC Viterbi and ISI and included USC Trustee and school namesake Andrew Viterbi and USC Provost Michael Quick.

“Endowing a chair means connecting ourselves to such great ideas coming out of ISI, and we are so excited to have Prem as the inaugural holder and to be associated with ISI,” said Michael Keston, a real estate entrepreneur and philanthropist who holds two degrees in engineering. He also worked in the aerospace industry on the Atlas rocket that carried former Sen. John Glenn into space to become the first U.S. astronaut to orbit the earth. "My investment in ISI and technology is a return to my first love, which is engineering."
Added USC Viterbi Dean Yannis Yortsos: “ISI, Mike and Linda Keston, Prem Natarajan,” Yortsos said. “Today, we are bringing them together in a close bond that will help invent the future.”
Natarajan, who is also a research professor in the Department of Computer Science, joined ISI in July 2013 from Raytheon BBN Technologies, an Internet pioneer and subsidiary of major defense and civilian contractor Raytheon Company.

During his 17 years at Raytheon BBN, he rose through the ranks to become vice president, principal scientist and one of three executive vice presidents. Natarajan’s responsibilities included developing technical strategy, identifying fresh research areas, and pursuing new markets and international customers. As a result, he launched Raytheon BBN’s computer vision, human social-cultural behavior predictions and image-processing.
Founded in 1972, ISI’s research has contributed to information processing and computer and technology communications that have had significant national security and defense implications. One of USC Viterbi's crown jewels, ISI attracts nearly $60 million annually for basic and applied research from federal agencies and the private sector. It employs 350 engineers, research scientists, graduate students and staff. ISI, an innovator for more than 40 years, helped conceive, design and implement the Internet.
Michael and Linda Keston created their endowed ISI directorship position with a $3.5 million donation last year.
“I am tremendously grateful for the investment that Michael and Linda have made in ISI to help grow our impact and remain relevant in this fast changing world,” Natarajan said. “The Keston's gift can only be described as empowering, confidence building and enabling.”

Michael Keston has a long-standing relationship with USC. He serves on the board of councilors of the USC Price School of Public Policy and the executive committee of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. He has taught in the Dollinger Master of Real Estate Development program at USC for more than 25 years.

He is currently chairman and CEO of the KFG Investment Co., a privately owned real estate company that has built and marketed approximately 30,000 residential units in 140 communities since he joined in 1970.

“My wife and I like to contribute to causes that are important in the world, but also to people that we would work with,” said Keston, who earned engineering degrees before moving into real estate. “More than a project in particular, what drew my interest toward ISI were the talented people that work there.”

The institute’s first philanthropic gift will support its mission of conducting groundbreaking research in the areas of information processing, computer and communications technologies. However, it will also be used to diversify the institute’s research portfolio.

“Michael and Linda Keston’s gift is visionary and inspiring,” said Yortsos. “Being the first of its kind to ISI, it is pioneering a path that will further propel ISI to the leading edge of thought leadership in information and computer science and technology.”

Along these lines, Natarajan wants to offer research residencies that would allow scientists to come to ISI for a year to develop new projects, with the successful ones evolving into permanent areas of investigative focus.

“The Keston gift instantly provides a prestigious platform and valuable resources for recruiting exciting new talent to ISI,” Natarajan said. “It ensures ISI’s continued vitality and success by enabling us to invest in new, high-risk ideas that can exert global impact.”

Keston said he and his wife are thrilled to support an institution as innovative as ISI.

When Linda and I decided to engage, we were interested in partnering with an organization that was involved in unique work,” Keston said. “When I became aware of the technological advances that were taking place at ISI, the engineer in me wanted to be a part of what helps them occur. The institute is absolutely extraordinary. We feel good about our decision to support ISI, which will help make scientific discoveries a reality.”

The Campaign for the University of Southern California is a multiyear effort that seeks to raise $6 billion or more in private philanthropy to advance USC’s academic priorities and expand its positive impact on the community and world. Four years after its launch, the campaign has raised more than $4.6 billion.