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Yuri Milner

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner has been making money and friends fast in Silicon Valley. Now he’s doing the same in cancer biology labs.

Milner, you’ll recall, is the self-made entrepreneur who created a fortune doing something-or-other in the new Russia and then made another $5 billion with partners after laying big bets on Facebook starting in 2009, a couple of years before the social network’s IPO.

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.

Don’t laugh, but Milner, who quit his PhD in physics at the Russian Academy of Sciences to study for an MBA at Wharton, actually says the prizes are a kind of scheme to redistribute wealth among overachievers. He told the Wall Street Journal that he thinks “there is a significant deficit in our social system, globally, that scientists are underappreciated as people who are making significant contributions to our everyday survival.”

It’s only fair they should get a few million, right? After all, string theorists and yeast geneticists are just as smart as the guys at Google, maybe even smarter. What a pity their stuff doesn’t scale.

Or maybe Milner is thinking a bit like Alfred Nobel, who invented dynamite and sold weapons but later whitened his name by endowing the famous Swedish prizes. The origins of Milner’s fortune, too, are not entirely crystal clear, as writer Michael Wolff documents in this colorful profile of how the Russian oligarch bought his way into Silicon Valley. Milner, memorably, is described as “a Vladimir Putin look-alike with a dark undershirt peeking out of his collar.”

What’s beyond doubt is that Milner revolutionized tech investing with an all-in, bring-a-shotgun-to-a-knife-fight approach. He plunked down $200 million in Facebook at a price that looked high at the time. And, when other venture capitalists were picking, weighing, and choosing among entrepreneurs, Milner famously made a blanket offer to invest sight unseen in every single startup accepted into Y Combinator, the successful startup incubator.

So what, if anything, does Milner’s modus operandi have to do with academic biology?

The winners of the prize are nearly all bench biologists; they include some big names, like 64-year-old Bert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins, as well as lesser-known researchers such as Titia de Lange, a cell biologist at the Rockefeller University in Manhattan. There is one Nobel Prize winner on the list, Japan’s Shinya Yamanaka, as well as three researchers I’d say narrowly missed winning one.

Brin’s wife, biotech entrepreneur Anne Wojcicki, said in a press release that the winners are all scientists who “think big, take risks and have made a significant impact.”

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.

Now that could scale.

Like the winners of the physics prize last year, and perhaps Zuckerberg before them, the scientists upon whom the tycoon is raining cash have reacted with astonishment. Who? Milner? Moi? Eric Lander, head of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, and one of Milner’s picks, expressed shock to the New York Times at winning and called the prize purse “a staggering amount of money for a scientist.”

[Update: The New York Times issued a correction to their story, saying it quoted Dr. Lander incorrectly. He called the award “a staggering sum for an individual prize,” not “a staggering amount of money for a scientist.”]

Eric Lander

In truth, Lander is being far too modest. He’s the creator of an immense research empire at MIT (his latest research building in Cambridge towers above the previous two as if they were so many Russian dolls) and earned $791,000 in 2010, the most recent year for which I could find the Broad Institute’s IRS filings. 

Actually, I’d have to call Lander the single most influential and powerful scientist in America.

Lander has also got a bit of a golden touch when it comes to startup companies, most recently in the field of cancer DNA and cancer stem cells. The Securities and Exchange Commission’s database showed me that he is a cofounder of Cambridge company Verastem, which is working on drugs to target cancer stem cells. He owns 358,000 shares of the company, worth some $3.5 million.

A staggering sum for anyone. But hold on. The other cofounder of Verastem is biologist Robert Weinberg, who, like Lander, is one of the 11 people getting $3 million from Milner and company for his contributions to science.  

So is Milner kind of, sort of, investing with these prizes?

It could make sense. Another company Lander founded, Foundation Medicine, is pioneering the application of DNA sequencing in treating cancer (see “Foundation Medicine: Personalizing Cancer Drugs”). This January the company raised $13.5 million from investors who included, yes, Yuri Milner.

Anyway, I don’t mean to suggest that any of these scientists needs Milner’s money, or his attention, or his approval. I’m sure their surprise was authentic. It’s just that cancer is the next big thing, and Milner knows on what side to butter the toast.

On every side. 

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