“Our society needs more heroes who are scientists, researchers and engineers. We need to celebrate and reward the people who cure diseases, expand our understanding of humanity and work to improve people’s lives.” – Mark Zuckerberg
Three of Silicon Valley’s most high-profile entrepreneurs are launching a new foundation that rewards excellence in life sciences with the largest prizes for this type of work in the world. The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation is to reward life-saving medical research with 11 annual awards, each with an individual reward of $3 million. Google’s Sergey Brin and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have teamed up with technology investor Yuri Milner, whose eponymous awards were set up last year to award breakthroughs in fundamental physics, to reward medical breakthroughs. “Young people will hopefully get the message that not only the careers in sports or entertainment can get a public recognition,” Milner said. All three tycoons have personal links to life sciences–Brin is married to Anne Wojcicki, founder of genomics firm 23andMe, and who is also a co-sponsor of the awards, while Zuckerberg tied the knot with med-school graduate Priscilla Chan last year, who is aiming for a career in pediatrics. The Zuckerbergs are already known for their philanthropy, coming in just behind legendary investor Warren Buffett. Milner, founder of Digital Sky Technologies, and who shelled out $200 million on Facebook four years ago, is doing it for personal reasons. “I have two very close relatives with very bad diseases, one of them is cancer,” he told The Guardian. This is part of my personal connection with this prize.” The chair of the new foundation will be Art Levinson, the chairman of Apple.
The winners of the $33 million will be officially announced today, although the recipients, from the U.S., Japan, Italy and the Netherlands, have already been told. One of them, a neural circuits pioneer at Rockefeller, said she thought she had fallen victim to either a practical joke or a Nigerian scam. “The scale of this is so out-sized I think it will have a huge impact on the life sciences,” said Cornelia Bargmann.