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.