$15M gift from Austin E. Knowlton Foundation to help transform Ohio State engineering campus


The late Austin E. “Dutch” Knowlton’s impact on The Ohio State University’s physical campus and on College of Engineering students and faculty has been nothing short of transformational.

Fontana Labs exterior facing southeast
On the right, BMEC’s first phase, Mars G. Fontana Laboratories. To the left, the former MacQuigg Laboratories, which will be renovated during phase two.

Continuing its namesake’s commitment to education and to his alma mater, the Austin E. Knowlton Foundation has donated $15 million to finalize design and construction of The Ohio State University’s Biomedical and Materials Engineering Complex (BMEC). Previously, Knowlton and the foundation he established have generously supported architecture and aviation programs at Ohio State.

“Dutch Knowlton’s legacy is forever cemented on the Ohio State campus – not just in the brick and mortar of this transformational and state-of-the-art complex, but also in the ethos of generosity he has inspired, through the Knowlton Foundation and its important work,” Ohio State President Kristina M. Johnson said. “Future generations of students will benefit from his vision and philanthropy, which will both strengthen the College of Engineering’s highly ranked academic programs and drive economic development across our city and state.”

The gift will support construction of the second and final phase of BMEC, located on the corner of Woodruff Avenue and College Road. BMEC’s first phase, named Mars G. Fontana Laboratories, was completed in the summer of 2020. Bringing together the departments of Biomedical Engineering and Materials Science and Engineering, Fontana Labs showcases teaching and research happening in the heart of Ohio State’s Columbus campus, while inspiring lifesaving, unprecedented advances in the rapidly growing field of biomaterials.

Referred to as “The Gateway to Engineering,” the second phase of BMEC will reinvent how Ohio State inspires and educates future Buckeye engineers. Students and faculty will begin moving into the modernized facility in late summer 2025, completing the most significant capital investments in teaching, learning and discovery in the College of Engineering’s history.

John Lindberg at podium
Knowlton Foundation President John Lindberg speaks at The Ohio State University Foundation Board meeting as President Johnson looks on.

“I believe Mr. Knowlton would be beyond thrilled to see how his legacy through the foundation is impacting and will continue to impact the students and faculty at his alma mater,” said alumnus John Lindberg, president of the Austin E. Knowlton Foundation. “Since Mr. Knowlton started the foundation during his lifetime in 1981, our mission has been to promote and advance higher education in the United States through direct grants and contributions to qualified colleges and universities.”

The $90 million Gateway to Engineering project, funded by state and college investment in addition to philanthropy, includes the demolition of 68-year-old Watts Hall prior to the construction of a new facility that will attach to a renovated structure, formerly known as MacQuigg Laboratories. In total, this second phase of BMEC will be a 124,000-square-foot facility featuring modern, efficient spaces for 21st century teaching and research. Combined with Fontana Labs, the entire BMEC footprint will be 248,000 square feet.

BMEC Phase Two will provide STEM education-focused teaching labs, a new College of Engineering leadership suite, and dedicated space for research on wearable health sensors, biomaterials and more. The Department of Engineering Education and its first-year engineering classes also will move to the new Gateway to Engineering facility, providing a model for the classroom of the future.

“From architecture to aviation to engineering, the Knowlton Foundation’s investments are literal and figurative pillars of the experiential education our students enjoy,” said College of Engineering Dean Ayanna Howard. “Our students’ current and future successes bear testament to Dutch Knowlton’s passion for education and his beloved alma mater.”

Dutch Knowlton received his architectural engineering degree from Ohio State in 1931. He was the owner and chairman of the Knowlton Construction Company, which started in Bellefontaine, Ohio, in 1937 and whose predecessors dated back to 1906. His company was responsible for over 600 major construction projects throughout Ohio and the Midwest, including school buildings, hospitals and libraries.

Dutch Knowlton portrait
Dutch Knowlton

In 1994, Knowlton pledged $16.2 million to Ohio State to support the growth and continued excellence of its architecture program. The Austin E. Knowlton School of Architecture remains one of the country’s most admired institutions and Knowlton Hall has become a signature building on Ohio State’s campus.

In 2015, the Knowlton Foundation donated $10 million to upgrade aviation education facilities and the terminal at The Ohio State University Airport. The Austin E. Knowlton Aviation Learning Center and Executive Terminal enabled the university to meet the educational needs of 500-plus Ohio State students, research demands of the state and nation, and service expectations of local businesses and pilots.

In addition to modern classrooms and research environments, the Gateway to Engineering facility will include a two-floor makerspace for students to bring ideas to life as well as rooms dedicated to K-12 STEM outreach programming.

Senior biomedical engineering student Aneesh Zutshi has enjoyed Fontana Labs, the first phase of BMEC, since it opened. He credits it with propelling his research, helping him cultivate friendships and affording him more hands-on learning opportunities.

While Zutshi will graduate before the second phase is complete, he is happy for the younger Buckeye engineers following him.

“Their first-year engineering courses being located near the future makerspaces will provide them early exposure to upperclass design projects,” he said. “I know they will be excited to see these prototypes, and it will spark their own curiosity for their future projects.”

Founded in 1981, the nonprofit Austin E. Knowlton Foundation seeks to promote and advance higher education in the United States and to provide direct grants and contributions to qualified colleges and universities. The foundation’s rich history with Ohio State has spurred innovation and excellence in educational programs, paving the way for creativity and discovery among diverse disciplines.

Interested in joining the Knowlton Foundation in supporting the Gateway to Engineering? Make an online gift to the Biomedical and Engineering Materials Complex (BMEC) Fund or email engineering@osu.edu to learn how you can help.