$100M gift from Irvine Co.’s Bren powers Caltech space electricity idea

Real estate developer started donation commitment in 2013

Orange County’s billionaire real estate developer Donald Bren has donated at least $100 million to a Caltech project that aims to generate solar power in space and beam it back to earth.

The Southern California News Group has learned that in 2013, Bren agreed to a 10-year commitment to Space Solar Power Project at the Pasadena institute. The years-long effort will reach a milestone in the coming months when it launches the first space test of technology that could change how the world creates and distributes electricity.

“I have been a student researching the possible applications of space-based solar energy for many years,” said Bren, chairman and owner of Irvine Co. and a lifetime trustee at Caltech. “My interest in supporting the world-class scientists at Caltech is driven by my belief in harnessing the natural power of the sun for the benefit of everyone.”

Bren, perhaps best known for using pioneering planning skills to help create the city of Irvine 50 years ago, is not just writing checks from his philanthropic foundation. His real estate experiences also taught him that power distribution is often a major cost and headache.

He brought to Caltech an idea that was sparked by a Popular Science magazine piece on power transmission ideas. At the time, Caltech scientists had been working on slices of the technology required for such an endeavor.

A partnership eventually evolved that is unique in several ways. It’s one of the largest donations Caltech has received. But even rarer: Bren has taken no ownership stake in what the project produces — potentially high-value patents on breakthrough science.

“It shows the magnitude of the generosity,” one of the Caltech professors on the project, Ali Hajimiri, said in an interview Friday.

“They really want to change the world and they don’t want anything in return,” Hajimiri said of Bren and his wife, Brigitte, a Caltech board member. “They truly see this as an opportunity to make a difference.”

Power everywhere

If this sounds like science fiction, in some ways, it once was.

Legendary sci-fi author Isaac Asimov’s 1941 short story “Reason” describes a space station distributing solar energy to various planets. And various government agencies and private investors have toyed with similar concepts on and off since the 1970s.

Today’s experimentation at Caltech involves complex, game-changing thinking.

For example, it requires accuracy in picoseconds, one trillionth of a second. The novel solar panels being tested are nearly as thin as a sheet of paper. The system must be smart enough to detect any physical intrusion into the earth-bound transmission beam, for safety’s sake. It also must be lightweight and flexible to lower the launch costs. And this won’t be a spaceship, rather imagine a large carpet of solar panels.

You don’t need a physics Ph.D. to see the giant potential of turning electricity into something similar to cell service. Science has brought wireless telephone and data service to much of the globe with ever-increasing speed and clarity. And in space, the sun is available to create power all day, every day, free from weather constraints.

The project’s first test will launch a combination power generator and transmitter measuring roughly 6 feet by 6 feet. Taking the concept into space will be by Silicon Valley start-up Momentus.

Hajimiri says there are three goals: deploy the tech in space; gather energy using the panels; transmit that electricity through space.

That’s only a first step. The next one involves the prospect of taking the concept into real-world use, something that could be long as six years away, he says.

Yes, it’s another billionaire tied to space technology. But this isn’t anything like the hyped battle among three others billionaires — Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Virgin’s Richard Branson and Tesla/Space X’s Elon Musk — to create vehicles that will enable a space tourism industry.

For now, those are largely products for the rich. Bren’s solar project seeks to create a global supply of affordable and clean power.

“Donald Bren has brought the same drive and discipline that he has demonstrated with master planning communities to the Space Solar Program,” Caltech president Thomas Rosenbaum said in a statement. “He has presented a remarkable technical challenge that promises a remarkable payoff for humanity: a world powered by uninterruptible renewable energy.”

Long-term deal

The project’s genesis came a decade ago when Bren had a conversation about space power with Caltech’s then-president Jean-Lou Chameau.

Soon a faculty group started discussing the possibilities of what seemed far-fetched at the time. Eventually, Caltech presented Bren with a proposal. In 2013, the school started the work, and Bren began his donations, which Caltech says now exceed $100 million.

“We came up with a dream,” says Sergio Pellegrino, another Caltech professor on the project. “We needed to rethink everything.”

The once-secret, 10-year commitment has helped the project over many hurdles. Pellegrino compares it to shorter-term thinking involved in a $17.5 million, three-year grant Caltech got from defense contractor Northrop Grumman in 2015 to work on space power technologies.

“It allows us to think ahead,” Pellegrino says. “Without that, it couldn’t get done.”

For starters, Bren’s contributions allow professors to hire students to work on the plan with a five-year commitment, ideal for doctoral candidates.

Also, when a necessary part can’t be found, Caltech can make it themselves. That often takes time when they’re creating never-been-tried-before gadgets.

Bren and his wife meet with Caltech researchers at least once a year. Pellegrino says the 89-year-old businessman brings a far different perspective to the project than what typically exists within the Caltech campus.

For example, Bren suggested the project use Southern California suppliers as much as possible in order to make a regional hub for space-centric power. That was a shift from the typical global sourcing approach.

“He had a regional dimension to his thinking I was not thinking about,” Pellegrino says.

Thinking green

Bren is no stranger to environmentally-friendly efforts.

His team often notes how green the city of Irvine is — literally and figuratively. Bren owns more environmentally friendly “LEED-certified” office buildings — 70 — than anyone else in California.

But it’s also about what Bren hasn’t built. In Orange County, Bren has given away 57,500 acres of the Irvine Ranch land for parks and preserves and has funded endowments to maintain those lands.

Yes, some of those land deals were part of trades for construction approvals. But at today’s land prices of roughly $7 million an acre for ready-to-build lots, his contribution adds up to $35 billion.

His other educational donations include giving UC Santa Barbara $20 million to fund the Donald Bren School of Environmental Science and Management. The program that started in 1997 was the first U.S. university to focus graduate studies on issues such as sustainability and conservation.

This Caltech gift is a tad grander and potentially far more global. And the gee-whiz thought of power coming from space isn’t the only possible breakthrough application.

Wireless power transmission on Earth could revolutionize everything from the safety and aesthetics of overhead power lines to how power is supplied in emergency situations to the creation of more environmentally friendly solar panels and even how we refuel an electric car.

Professor Hajimiri notes that “technology finds its own path” through the commercialization of its potential to the ultimate consumer.

Consider looking at how wireless information technology moved computing and storage from your device to the Internet’s vast cloud.

“Just imagine if power was as ubiquitous as WiFi or cellular.”

Irvine Co.’s Bren Gives Philanthropy Equal Priority

The man who built much of Orange County is shifting gears.

Donald Bren, the 78-year-old chairman of the Irvine Co., is spending as much time on philanthropy these days as he is on his business.

What that might mean for the future of his company, or the county, remains to be seen.

What is known is that Bren’s philanthropy has left a mark that rivals the work he’s done building out about one-fifth of Orange County. From the Bren supported Law School at UC Irvine to a 20,000-acre parcel of the original Irvine Ranch that, in June, was transferred to the county as permanent open space, Bren’s charitable projects have been aimed at making a long-term impact.

It’s true that Bren is wealthy even in a world of mega-wealth. His fortune, pegged at about $12 billion, was ranked the 45th biggest in the world this year by Forbes magazine.

It’s also true that the total of Bren’s philanthropy has been staggering. This month, when he was given the first “Donald Bren Legacy of Giving Award” – a permanent award created by the investment group that backs National Philanthropy Day in Orange County – the group listed Bren’s total charity, so far, at $1.3 billion and some 93,000 acres of land.

Bren agreed to chat about philanthropy (other topics weren’t on the table) via e-mail.

Q. If, 100 years from now, somebody reads your name in a book, do you hope you’re connected to the city of Irvine, Crystal Cove State Park or something else?

A. It has all been important to me.

My focus has been on the master planning and master building of the 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch. The land is quite complex, and each area or quadrant requires individual care. It has been my vision through careful planning to create an unparalleled community, where residents enjoy an ease of living and where families have access to the best schools for their children.

My hope is that we at the Irvine Co. are remembered for creating a community in balance with its surroundings and for taking equal care in all aspects of planning related to the Irvine Ranch.

Q. At this stage of your life, what’s more important to you, work or philanthropy?

A. At this stage of my life, both work and philanthropy have equal priority.

Q. You said the other day that philanthropy is a way to build partnerships. Can you explain what you mean by that?

A. Community partnerships create philanthropy. For our community to continue to be a place where people “choose” to live, we need strong community partnerships between businesses, governments and nonprofits to sustain the quality of life that we have come to enjoy in Orange County. For me, philanthropy has always been about simply creating new community partnerships, partnerships that will be valued forever.

Perhaps the best example is our ongoing partnership with the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, as well as county government and the Nature Conservancy, working together for the preservation of 50,000 acres of open space, representing more than half of the original Irvine Ranch.

Q. Some of your gifts have touched areas that don’t seem to have much to do with your core businesses. Can you fill in some detail about why you give the way you do?

A. Rather than limiting my contributions to a singular geography, I have tried to focus on certain areas of need – education, for example. I believe that by doing so, we can collectively have the greatest impact.

I believe the greatest investment we can make is in the education of our children, wherever they live. Using THINK Together as an example, I saw a need off the Irvine Ranch, in Santa Ana, to help improve the quality of education in local public schools. Through my partnership with THINK Together, we have been able to serve some 70,000 at-risk and low-income students, raise test scores and improve the overall quality of life for children throughout Southern California.

Q. Your developments and reputation indicate that you see minute detail as critical to the success of any venture. Do you take the same mindset when involved in philanthropy? Do your nonprofit projects take on a life similar to business projects?

A. I consider myself lucky because I have been able to transfer many of my business experiences and much of my own time toward creating nonprofit community investments. And I do try to bring the same level of attention to both my philanthropic and business ventures.

Q. How does one measure the success of a gift?

A. We use the same philosophy for our nonprofit investments as we do for our real estate investments. First, we ask that the nonprofits we support to have goals and to be able to measure their results. We also look for strong leadership, with a passion in their mission. And our nonprofit partners have done a fantastic job due to this shared philosophy and focus.

Q. Is giving an intellectual challenge? Does it engage your head or your heart? Does it have to reach both?

A. Both.

Q. Obviously, some causes are particularly important to you…. Do you foresee your interests changing over time?

A. My two primary areas of focus have been openspace conservation and education, and I expect those to remain my priorities in the future.

The Irvine open space and parklands provide serenity and balance to our unique Orange County lifestyle. When I first joined the Irvine Co., I realized that less than 11,000 acres were designated as open space in the original master plan, and that just didn’t seem adequate to me. So, I began the lengthy process working with public and community organizations to add more open space.

Working together with the Nature Conservancy and local governments, we were able to expand the original 11,000 acres to encompass more than 50,000 acres of land that is now permanently protected and preserved forever. I believe it is truly a national treasure, and one that I’m proud to say we created together.

Q. Have you got a favorite project?

A. I tend to be more focused on the cumulative impact of our collective efforts, rather than on any one individual project. For example, one park is not more important than the others, but rather the fact that we have dedicated more than 50,000 acres of open space on the Irvine Ranch is what I find most satisfying.

Q. Is giving money away as fun as making it?

A. I get great satisfaction from both business and philanthropy.

Andre Mouchard
Orange County Register

For Donald Bren, Giving Back Was Always In The Plan

Stand on a hill and take in the view, and the chances are good you’ll see the imprint of the Irvine Co. on the Orange County landscape around you. For more than 30 years, the man responsible for shaping much of that landscape has been Irvine Co. chairman Donald Bren.

The influence of Bren, 78, is, like the landscape, almost too big to take in at a glance. Whether it’s tens of millions spent on gifts to UC Irvine and area schools, the design of the Irvine Spectrum or a new resort at Pelican Hill, or the famously master-planned city of Irvine itself, billionaire Bren’s stamp is indelible.

But Bren, who lives on Harbor Island in Newport Beach, is also famously shy, rarely granting interviews or sharing his plans for the future. He made an exception this week to talk about his latest gift: 20,000 acres of rugged canyon lands in northern Orange County, accepted as new parkland Tuesday by the Orange County Board of Supervisors.

Bren spoke of his desire to leave not just a legacy of development, but of open space and habitat preservation as well. That was master-planned too. In 33 years with the Irvine Co., he said, his interest in preserving some of the county’s natural surroundings steadily grew.

Now, he says, the 20,000-acre gift makes it complete, with about 50 percent of the historic 93,000-acre Irvine Ranch preserved from development.

Q. How did all this start?
A. I go back to the beginning. In 1864 James Irvine and his partners assembled the Irvine Ranch. It was made up of three land grants – Spanish and Mexican land grants. But it was interesting: at the time the grants could only be obtained if there was a solid plan for the caring of the land. It was a demand by the king of Spain. So there was concern about the land in 1864.

And in 1894, the Irvine Co. was incorporated. It was one of five of the first corporations in the state of California.

During that time, again in 1897, the company donated 304 acres of land to the people in Orange County. The people nicknamed it the picnic grounds. Today it’s known as the Irvine Regional Park. It’s small in relation to the open space and parklands that have been created since.

Q. What’s next on the timeline?
A. 1960 was very important, almost a monumental period here for the company. The company has always been operated as a corporation with a board of directors and decided that they would embark on a master plan. They hired William Pereira, a well-known architect and master planner, to master plan the ranch.

Q. That was new at the time, wasn’t it?
A. Yes. There were a number of properties around United States that were under a master plan. Most of those were in the east. I think one was in the west. But it was cutting edge. And the directors of the company, they were concerned with the urban pressures from the Los Angeles metropolitan area moving south. Although they were in the agricultural business, they knew the transition was going be coming. They felt best way to protect their asset was to master plan it.

In that plan was a centerpiece that was proposed by Pereira, the 93,000-acre master plan. That centerpiece is now known as the University of California, Irvine. The company donated 1,000 acres to the university.

In 1969 the company donated 345 acres to create the William Mason Regional Park. Mason was the chairman of the Irvine Co., and he had died the year before prematurely.

I became a shareholder in the Irvine Co. in 1977, and I joined a New York investment group to invest in the Irvine properties. The sellers of the land were the Irvine family members plus the Irvine Foundation.

Q. What was your occupation at that time?
A. I was a builder. I would say a master builder and a master planner. My experience came from creating smaller master plans around the state of California but the largest is called Mission Viejo. And that was 10,000 acres – the master plan of a 52,000-acre ranch. Mission Viejo Ranch was 52,000 acres.

Q. It sounds like, at the beginning, the open space part of it for you was very closely tied to the experience of the people who would live in these communities.

A. It was something more than just a tract of homes. As we saw in the early days, in the western part of Orange County — I won’t name the cities. You know them. They grew without well-planned parks and recreation, and when open space opportunities were there, they weren’t taken advantage of. They were passed by. There was something grander, better for the community, than those early methods of home development.

And here at Irvine it’s more than just home development. We’ve created a new city. A new city was founded in 1971: the city of Irvine. And today we have, what, 250,000 people, and, interestingly enough, 250,000 jobs that have been created.

It’s been a 30-year movement to expand the open space and parklands, creating large scale preservation and conservation.

Q. It sounds like your own vision of open space, and the importance of it, seemed to be growing also.
A. We grew together.

Bren talked about more big milestones:

*The creation of the 37,000-acre Nature Reserve of Orange County in 1996, with 21,000 acres contributed by the Irvine Co.

*His donation of 11,000 acres of open space in 2001, along with a $50 million stewardship fund to help manage it.

*The creation of the non-profit Irvine Ranch Conservancy in 2005, and the completion that same year of a 22-mile mountains-to-sea trail.

*The designation of the Irvine Ranch as a National Natural Landmark in 2006, and a California Natural Landmark in 2008.

“The last 30 years of this long saga of preservation of the land: we complete this. The final 20,000 acres of land of the 50,000 acres (of ranchland preserved). That’s been dedicated and donated. And that ends 30 years of dedication to the environment, the open space and parklands.

“When I started with this effort, people in the community, people internally, (thought) I was a little strange with my notion of planning parkland, planning open space. It really hadn’t been done before.

“It hasn’t always been easy, either. But I’m pleased that we have reached this conclusion and the land will be for the public, forever, ” he said.

Q. Where did you grow up?
A. In Los Angeles. But Los Angeles in the early days. In west Los Angeles, the Santa Monica mountains were all around. And I had an opportunity to bike through those areas, and camp there, and in those days you could do that. And then the Sierras. I always liked hiking in the Sierras.

Q. Thinking about all the different donations, Irvine regional park, so many other things that really have shaped Orange County. Did you think you were going to have that big an imprint when you started out?
A. No. It’s something that grew. We all grew together, the community, the community leaders, the community groups and the Irvine Co. and the board of directors. Through a lot of discussion, give and take, we’ve come up with a plan that I’m proud of.

Q. In talking about the 20,000 acres, in the environmental community in Orange County, there is a persistent group that thinks the Irvine Co. is up to something: this must be because they want something else. What would you say to them?
A. That’s some type of ghost that perhaps they see out there. We’re not asking for any further major entitlement. We’re not in that process. Now that’s behind us.

Q. That really is about your legacy?
A. Yes that’s right. This is a significant legacy of this company, I think.

Q. The company’s legacy, and yours also?
A. Yes, if you want to say it that way.

Pat Brennan
Orange County Register

Bren One of Nation’s Top 10 Philanthropists

The 10 Top American Givers

BusinessWeek announces the 2008 “Top American Philanthropists.”
by Aili McConnon and Lawrence Delevingne

Many of America’s ultra-rich continued to give big donations to charity in 2008, despite the worst financial crisis in decades. In the past year, seven philanthropists gave north of $200 million and nine gave more than $100 million to causes ranging from wilderness preservation to fighting malaria. Warren Buffett and Bill Gates remain far and away the biggest givers overall, but two of 12 newcomers to the list pledged to give more than $1 billion away: William Barron Hilton, co-chairman of the Hilton hotel chain who pledged late last year to give away 97% of his wealth — some $1.7 billion — to his family’s humanitarian foundation and Peter G. Peterson, co-founder of the investment firm Blackstone Group, who gave $1 billion this year to establish a foundation that promotes fiscal responsibility.

Here are the Top 10 American Givers:

1. Warren Buffett

Berkshire Hathaway CEO
2004-08 Giving* $40,655 million

Buffett’s $31 billion commitment to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, announced in June 2006, resonated throughout the philanthropic community. The giving is aimed at funding education and global health initiatives. This year the commitment to the Gates Foundation still resonates, inspiring other donors with a new model of philanthropy. Buffett, the world’s second-richest man, also earmarked billions for the Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and the NoVo Foundation — independent family foundations that support causes ranging from reproductive health to worldwide conservation.

For more, visit the Warren Buffett Philanthropy.

2. Bill & Melinda Gates

Microsoft co-founder
2004-08 Giving* $2,625 million

Bill and Melinda Gates give through their massive Seattle-based family foundation, which says it is “committed to ensuring all people have the opportunity to lead healthy, productive lives.” With an endowment of nearly $36 billion, the foundation works with partners to give people a chance to lift themselves out of hunger and extreme poverty in developing countries and, in the U.S., to ensure that all people have the opportunities they need to succeed in school and life. Its endowment is eventually expected to double, thanks to a long-term $31 billion gift from investor Warren Buffett, which pays out in installments. Recent initiatives include $100 million in micro medical-research grants; a $164 million grant to the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa; and $125 million to fight global tobacco use as part of a $500 million partnership with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

For more, visit the Gates Foundation.

3. George Kaiser

Oil and gas, banking, investments
2004-08 Giving* $2,377 million

Kaiser’s focus remains on early intervention in the cycle of poverty. Giving through his Tulsa-based foundation provides services that include early childhood education, pre-natal health care, public health, in-home parenting, and secondary education, as well as more generalized safety net services that deal with the symptoms of poverty. More recent initiatives have focused on women’s incarceration, secondary schools, and reserving land to create an arts and entertainment district in Tulsa. The biggest payout may be yet to come: Kaiser has said he plans to increase his gifts “until I die with one dollar left, assuming I can get the timing just right.”

For more, visit the George Kaiser Family Foundation.

4. George Soros

2004-08 Giving* $2,214 million

Soros distributes $400 million or more each year through his charitable network, which aims to foster open and democratic societies around the world. This year Soros gave some $535 million to dozens of initiatives, including education in Liberia, microfinance in India, and mental health in Moldova. In 2005 he gave an extra $200 million for his Central European University, a graduate school he helped found in Budapest in 1991. An immigrant from Hungary who made his first billion dollars in England, Soros has given nearly $7 billion to support his network of foundations in more than 60 countries.

For more, visit the Open Society Institute.

5. William Barron Hilton

Heir and former CEO of Hilton Hotels
2004-08 Giving* $1,700 million

New to list Following in his father’s footsteps, Hilton late last year announced his intention to leave 97% of his wealth to charity after his stakes in Hilton Hotels and Harrah’s Entertainment were bought out by private equity groups for billions. Hilton’s fortune will go to his family’s foundation, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, which works to alleviate the suffering of the world’s most disadvantaged, with an emphasis on children and support for the work of Roman Catholic nuns. Grants go to causes such as stopping trachoma, the world’s leading cause of preventable blindness in Africa; helping homeless families in the U.S.; and providing clean water in Mexico.

For more, visit the Hilton Foundation.

6. Walton Family

Family of Wal-Mart founder

2004-08 Giving* $1,380 million

The world’s richest family is also one of the most united when it comes to philanthropy. The secretive Waltons commit the bulk of their gifts through the Walton Family Foundation, which supports a variety of charitable causes. Their areas of focus: K-12 education reform, quality-of-life initiatives in northwest Arkansas (home to Wal-Mart), economic development initiatives in the Mississippi Delta region of the U.S., and most recently, marine and fresh water fishing sustainability initiatives.

For more, visit the Walton Family Foundation.

7. Herbert & Marion Sandler

Golden West Financial co-founders
2004-08 Giving* $1,329 million

The Sandlers have given away more than $1 billion to the Sandler Foundation, which works to strengthen progressive causes, such as: exposing corruption and abuse of power; advocating for vulnerable and exploited people and environments; and advancing scientific research. Last year, for example, the foundation committed $10 million a year to launch and sustain ProPublica, an independent non-profit newsroom, under the leadership of former Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger, that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. The foundation also helped establish the liberal think-tank Center for American Progress with a $50 million gift in 2004.

For more, visit the Sandler Foundation.

8. Peter Peterson

Blackstone Group co-founder
2004-08 Giving* $1,168 million

New to list Using his proceeds from Blackstone Group’s IPO, Peterson donated $1 billion to establish the Peter G. Peterson Foundation this year. The focus: to encourage greater fiscal responsibility in the U.S. The foundation has already purchased, promoted, and distributed the documentary I.O.U.S.A. to educate Americans about swelling national and personal debt. (The film is likened by many to Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth.) The former Commerce Secretary’s timing was uncanny as the financial crisis underscored his urgent message about excessive spending.

For more, visit the Peter G. Peterson Foundation.

9. Donald Bren

Real estate developer
2004-08 Giving* $908 million

Using property and wealth from his real estate business, Bren has given more than $1 billion, much of it to support education. Bren’s commitment to schooling runs the gamut from students to principals to school districts to university scholars on his Irvine Ranch. This year Bren gave $8.5 million to THINK Together after-school programs, one of the largest private donations to after-school programs in California history. In 2007 gifts included $20 million for a new law school at University of California at Irvine and $3 million in annual grants, teacher recognition, and student scholarships. In 2006 he gave a $20 million gift to fund elementary fine arts, music, and science programs at schools in Irvine, Calif.

For more, visit the Donald Bren Foundation.

10. Michael Bloomberg

Bloomberg founder, NYC Mayor
2004-08 Giving* $903 million

This year, Bloomberg added a $250 million, four-year commitment to his Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use, which was established in 2005 and has received more than $375 million from the New York City mayor. The new money is in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Late last year, Bloomberg’s Family Foundation gave $9 million to promote global road safety, among others on the mayor’s long list of charitable causes each year. Dedicated to making strides in education, he has also committed $100 million to alma mater Johns Hopkins University and purchased a townhouse on the Upper East Side for his future foundation. Bloomberg gave $10 million to the World Trade Center Foundation. Since 1997, Bloomberg has pledged more than $1.5 billion to charities and initiatives.

For more, visit the Bloomberg Philanthropies.

*Based on public records and interviews with donors.

Data: BusinessWeek, The Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University

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