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Yuri Milner’s Millions, And Where They’re Going

You’ll have heard about Yuri Milner, the Russian entrepreneur (early Facebook investor, etc.) who’s recently announced some rather generous research prize awards:

Yesterday, Milner, along with some “old friends”—Google cofounder Sergey Brin, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and their respective wives—announced they are giving $33 million in prizes to 11 university-based biologists. Five of the awards, called the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, will be given annually going forward; they are similar to prizes for fundamental physics that Milner started giving out last year.
At $3 million apiece, the prize money tops the Nobels, whose purse is around $1 million. Yet neither amount is much compared to what you can make if you drop out of science and find a calling in Silicon Valley, as Brin, Milner, Zuckerberg did.

Technology Review has a good article on the whole effort. After looking over the awardees, Antonio Regalado has some speculation:

But looking over the list (the New York Times published it along with some useful biographical details here), I noticed some very strong similarities between the award winners. Nearly all are involved in studying cancer genetics or cancer stem cells, and sometimes both.
In other words, this isn’t any old list of researchers. It’s actually the scientific advisory board of Cure for Cancer, Inc. Because lately, DNA sequencing and better understanding of stem cells have become the technologies that look most likely to maybe, just maybe, point toward some real cancer cures.

Wouldn’t surprise me. This is a perfectly good area of research for targeted funding, and a good infusion of cash is bound to help move things along. The article stops short of saying that Milner (or someone he knows) might have a personal stake in all this, but that wouldn’t be the first time that situation has influenced the direction of research, either. I’m fine with that, actually – people have a right to do what they want to with their own money, and this sort of thing is orders of magnitude more useful than taking the equivalent pile of money and buying beachfront mansions with it. (Or a single beachfront mansion, come to think of it, depending on what market we’re talking about).
I’ve actually been very interested in seeing how some of the technology billionaires have been spending their money. Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, David Page, Sergey Brin, etc., have been putting some money behind some very unusual ventures, and I’m very happy to see them do it. If I were swimming in that kind of cash, I’d probably be bankrolling my own space program or something, too. Of course, those sorts of ideas are meant to eventually turn a profit. In that space example, you have tourism, launch services, asteroid mining, orbiting solar power, and a lot of other stuff familiar to anyone who ever read an old John W. Campbell editorial.
What about the biopharma side? You can try to invest to make money there, but it’s worth noting that not a lot of tech-era money has gone into venture capital in this area. Are we going to see more of it going as grants to academia? If so, that says something about the state of the field, doesn’t it? Perhaps the thinking is that there’s still so much basic science to be learned that you get more for your dollar investing in early research – at least, it could lead to something that’s a more compelling venture. And I’d be hard pressed to argue.

20 comments on “Yuri Milner’s Millions, And Where They’re Going”

  1. Henry's cat says:

    Q: How do you make a small fortune?
    A: Take a large fortune and invest it in cutting-edge science.

  2. irondoc says:

    Derek – along the lines of this topic, it might be interesting to do a review of some of the larger, privately financed biotech, and where they are getting their money. In particular, I was thinking about Dart Neurosciences…

  3. Biff says:

    There are a few old clichés along the lines of “Speculating ain’t investing.”
    Putting money into early stage biopharma is hardly distinguishable from speculating. In almost every case, you’ll get much more reliable financial results by donating to academic labs and non-profit research foundations. The resulting tax deductions impact your bottom line in a positive, predictable way, a phenomenon that is almost never seen in biopharma portfolios, especially the ones that are skewed to early stage companies.

  4. Dr Jimbo says:

    The goals in big physical programmes are also easier to define: land on an asteroid / dive to the bottom of the Marianas trench / build a network of solar recharging stations. That might make them more appealing, as well as the glamour of the John W Campbell factor.
    On the other side, big biological problems are harder to map out. And ‘learning more about cancer so we can develop better treatments’ probably doesn’t have the same cachet.
    Clearly, if you are stupidly rich and of the right inclination, you don’t see these as investments per se, but a satisfying way of spending your money, certainly at the early stages of projects. I’m a big fan of Elon Musk.

  5. NMH says:

    Are these prizes that the lab heads receive personally? If so, this is unwarranted–its often the post-docs and grad students who have the ideas and drive the project forward. Money is better spent if it is given only for spending in the lab. These advisor’s don’t need any more money or recognition then they are already getting.

  6. Jokemeister says:

    @1: You’re telling it wrong.
    Q: How do you make a small fortune by investing in cutting edge science?
    A: Start with a large fortune.

  7. B says:

    @5: I somewhat agree with you, but personally being in a large and successful lab – many of the ideas come from our PI. He is also our advocater. He goes to conferences and big conventions and gets us collaborators and on other papers.
    I think they deserve to be rewarded, but not from the entire prize pool. I think that getting 10% of the funds personal, 90% for lab spending would be fair for all involved.

  8. NMH says:

    @7: 10/90 split sounds good, 3/97 even better. I’m totally against personal prizes like this (and the Nobel): even if the advisor has most of the ideas (and in most labs that is rare)he is not doing the experiments and maybe not coming up with supplemental expers to drive the project forward to publication. If the prize is a personal reward for the advisor, all it does is support the pyramid scheme that academic science has become—the financial awards go disproportionately to the top, even though the labor contribution is mostly down below.

  9. B says:

    @8: I agree completely. I feel that post-docs (especially) and graduate students deserve far more credit than they currently get.

  10. Chauvenist says:

    Clearly, a Zionist plot

  11. ScientistSailor says:

    Derek,
    You forgot to mention that one Arthur D. Levinson is also a founder of this prize.

  12. ExGen says:

    I agree that perhaps the prizes would have been better utilized (and spawned greater advances in science) if they had been aimed at the respective labs, as no-strings-attached grants, rather than at the P.I.s––who for the most part (gazing at the quite familiar names…) have done quite well. Or why not divvy up the 3 mil prizes into a greater number of lesser, but still quite impactful (for your average academic scientist) prizes, like ten 300,000$ awards, and also make an attempt (unless there’s an underlying yearly focus on a particular field, like cancer this time) to sprinkle the recognition widely. I’m a bit perturbed by hearing that this year’s winners, all clustered in the cancer field, will be part of the nominating/deciding board the next year, and I wonder who they would pick…hmmm, more cancer colleagues in their elite fraternity? This effect could certainly water down the effect of the B’through prize over the years.

  13. bacillus says:

    In light of the untold billions already spent on basic cancer research since Tricky Dick pronounced war on it, it’s hard to imagine that a few extra mill is going to make the difference from breakthrough or not.

  14. Jose A Jarimba says:

    My parents wanted me to be a Doctor, but I decided to be a Researcher. When I looked all over for a Medical School that teaches Fetal Origins, there was non. So I decided to do my own Research with my own money, no University support, Government or private investors. Today, I am very proud to have discovered the origin (Causes) of Pain and found a cure for the same. When you free someone from Pain, this person reaches Optimal Health. Isn’t this Great? I am having a good time every day! Thank you

  15. matt says:

    I think the answer, as told by Zuckerberg (perhaps?) to an NPR reviewer, is that you all can fund your own prizes to support your own nobel 🙂 goals. They chose to use their money to identify and reward these high performers, and certainly that makes the rich get richer so to speak.
    This isn’t about funding research, the amount of money is too small for that. It’s about recognition, in general society outside the technical sphere.
    If you think about it, most sports have some sort of Athlete of the Year trophy. How unfair–those guys are already going to have huge salaries, big performance bonuses, endorsement deals–shouldn’t you be spreading the money out, and giving the Athlete of the Year reward to some of the lesser appreciated, probably more beat up and run down, possibly more needy athletes? Maybe that reward would be have more impact on the average performance level that way.

  16. matt says:

    ^ er…”would have more impact”
    In the same spirit, perhaps some former-postdoc billionaire, if ever one exists (Venter closest?), might fund a Postdoc Doughbell Prize. Sort of like “Best Supporting Actor/Actress” at the Oscars.

  17. Anonymous says:

    Some individuals have even bankrolled (in a serious way) their own life science companies, take Kenneth Dart (of foam cup fame) and Dart NeuroScience for instance….

  18. a says:

    The (scientifically) rich get richer…..

  19. Anonymous says:

    The individuals who won this prize are all wealthy, old, and decades removed from the days when they did science directly. This prize represents one group of rich, famous people giving money to a second group of (slightly less) rich and famous people.

  20. Anonymous BMS Researcher says:

    “stuff familiar to anyone who ever read an old John W. Campbell editorial”
    Or to anyone who has read Heinlein’s classic tale “The Man Who Sold The Moon,” with a main character who is the 20th-century equivalent of the 19th-century robber baron capitalists who built America’s railway network. Had somebody like him existed, maybe we’d have commercial space travel by now.
    Unfortunately out of print like a lot of classic SF but plenty of used copies are available.

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