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“Helping to develop the science leaders of the future brings great satisfaction” – Mike Gooley on donating £1m

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by Cancer Research UK | Philanthropy and partnerships

23 March 2021

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Mike Gooley
Mike Gooley CBE

Trailfinders founder Mike Gooley CBE has been with us since the very beginning. A supporter of our Create the Change campaign to help build the Francis Crick Institute – Europe’s largest single-site biomedical research facility – Mike has just donated a further £1m, this time to support the institute’s PhD programme. We spoke with Mike about his fascination with discovery research and passion for philanthropy.

An early career spent exploring the world in the military led a young Mike Gooley to set up global travel company Trailfinders in 1970. After its huge success, in 1995 he established The Mike Gooley Trailfinders Charity, which has since given over £70m to important causes. In 2006, he was recognised for his services to travel and charity with a CBE. Mike has been a dedicated Cancer Research UK supporter since our inception in 2002 and before then, one of our predecessor organisations, the Imperial Cancer Research Fund. Through the charity, he was drawn to a campaign to build a promising new institute named after Francis Crick – one that sought to transform our understanding of the biology underlying human health and disease.  

Knowing that we were part of something with so much potential to advance medical science was most rewarding

“Despite my expertise in military demolitions, I get my kicks from building organisations and structures,” says Mike, who counts watching the Queen officially open the Crick to the public back in 2016 as among his favourite moments as a philanthropist. “It was joyous,” he says. “Knowing that we were part of something with so much potential to advance medical science was most rewarding.”   

Now, Mike has gone a giant step further by donating £1m to support the Crick’s PhD programme, designed to attract the brightest scientific minds and provide an opportunity for highly motivated, exceptionally talented people from around the world to embark on their careers in biomedical research. As PhD student Vidya Chivukula attests: “The training I’ve received here makes me feel like I’m ready to take on anything in the future. I’ve matured from being a naïve student to a confident scientist.” 

A champion for growing talent in his own business, Mike felt the programme was a natural fit for his philanthropy. But it was a conversation with Crick Director Sir Paul Nurse that really got Mike inspired by the programme’s potential. “I was in awe meeting Sir Paul as a world-renowned scientist, but despite his extraordinary achievements I found him to be very modest,” he recalls. “I enjoyed hearing about his hopes for the institute and the PhD programme. Knowing that I will help to develop the ‘Sir Pauls’ of the future and be a small part of the Crick’s success brings great satisfaction.” 

I’ve always been interested in the power of science to better people’s quality of life

Mike himself showed an early interest in science, studying A-level Physics and Chemistry followed by Atomic Physics and Fuels and Explosives at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. His fascination with research endures today. “I’ve always been interested in the power of science to better people’s quality of life, in particular discovery research, which aims to expand our understanding of the basic biology underlying human health and disease.”   

He says this pull towards biology has been a major factor in his decision to support cutting-edge research like ours. And, as Mike is not known for following the crowd – dismissing the trend for taking holiday booking online in favour of a more customer-centric approach that has been endlessly praised by Trailfinders’ loyal customer base – it doesn’t feel too far a stretch to suggest that Mike was attracted to the Crick’s shared predilection to do things differently, breaking down barriers to pursue quality and excellence.  

My business success has brought an excess of wealth to share

But the overarching reason for Mike’s support seems to be his almost visceral passion for improving human health through philanthropy and his strong sense of duty to give back. Despite the devastating impact on the travel industry wrought by the pandemic – weathered by Trailfinders thanks to large reserves from more forgiving times – Mike has shown an honourable commitment to supporting charitable causes throughout 2020 and into 2021. We’re hugely grateful to be among them.  

“I lived the first 40 years of my life having to watch every penny, but my business success has brought an excess of wealth to share,” says Mike, who also takes a Bill Gates approach to inheritance: “I very much relate when he says he loves his children too much to spoil them with unearned wealth.” It’s clear that for Mike, philanthropy is not a sacrifice. Instead, he says: “It’s a way of paying one’s dues – a vent for gratitude since fate has smiled on me. 

“The pandemic has shown once again how integral the Crick’s science is to society, here in the UK and globally,” he continues, “and I believe philanthropy is a key factor in its success. I hope to be able to continue supporting this wonderful institute in the years to come and that others may feel inspired to do the same.”  

Recalling the moment he received the good news from Mike about his donation, Sir Paul says: “It was a pleasure to receive this transformational gift from one of the institute’s longest-standing friends. It will allow us to equip our talented junior scientists with the tools and knowledge required to build exceptional careers in biomedical research. Thank you to Mike for his extraordinary generosity.”  


– Joanna Lewin, Philanthropy Communications Specialist at Cancer Research UK