Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his pediatrician wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, announced this week that their Chan Zuckerberg Initiative will fund a $3 billion effort to cure all diseases.
Mark Zuckerberg announced in December 2015 that he was going to give away 99 percent of his wealth. But instead of forming a traditional charity, he bequeathed his Facebook shares to his own Limited Liability Corporation, called the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Zuckerberg and Chan stated that their initial charitable focus areas would be personalized learning, curing disease, connecting people and building strong communities. But the move generated a torrent of criticism, since LLC’s are a form of corporate ownership that can do things like invest in private companies and earn money.
Given that Facebook and other Silicon Valley tech companies have used offshore tax havens to lower their supposedly “fair” tax rate down to 0.00045 percent, critics voiced the concern that the Zuckerberg duo could change their mind at any time in the future and just keep the money.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is expected to commit the pledged $3 billion over the next 10 years to accelerate basic medical and biological research, including the creation of software and hardware research tools that could lead to disruptive scientific breakthroughs similar to the impact of the microscope and DNA sequencing.
The Initiative’s stated goal is to “cure, prevent or manage all disease” in the next 80 or so years. Although the couple admits that may sound like science fiction, they point to the spectacular acceleration over the last century of bioengineering, which has created vaccines, statins for heart disease and chemotherapy.
Zuckerberg and Chan said in an interview with the Associated Press that he and his wife have spent the past two years speaking to scientists and other experts to plan the endeavor. Mark emphasized “that this isn’t something where we just read a book and decided we’re going to do.”
Their first commitment includes $600 million to fund a San Francisco research incubator called the “Biohub,” which will run as an independent research center at the University of California San Francisco. The biotech tech incubator will officially collaborate with the University of California Berkeley and Stanford University to encourage academic researchers to work alongside private sector engineers long-term projects.
The incubator’s goal is to avoid focusing too narrowly on specific ailments, but rather to do basic research for broad applications. An example would be creating a “cellular atlas” of the myriad of cell types in the human body. Such a knowledge base would speed whole new classes of drug therapies.
Chan Zuckerberg’s work as a pediatrician is credited with the inspiration for the project. The Zuckerbergs emphasized that their goal to solve disease can be accomplished, if not in their lifetime, then in their baby daughter Max’s lifetime.
KQED public television interviewed Eric Lander, professor of biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Broad Institute at MIT and Harvard, who had about 20 conversations with Zuckerberg and Chan about how their initiative can lead to “the right kind of goal for thinking about that kind of timeframe.”
Lander commented that “Mark [Zuckerberg] has brought new models to industry with Facebook,” and he should use that same entrepreneurship model with his charity, since there is no point in replicating what the National Institute of Health already does.
The Chan Zuckerberg Science Initiative will be headed by neuroscientist Cornelia Bargmann, who is best known for studying C. elegans worms to uncover how neurons and genes affect behavior. Her research has revealed how gene mechanisms in roundworms mimic those in mammals. By manipulating certain worm genes, she has demonstrated how behavior can be changed.
Bargmann will resign from as the head of the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior at Rockefeller University in New York to join the Initiative in California on October 1.