Will Sean Parker Become the Most Important Cancer Funder Around?

Any time a young tech billionaire starts giving to a specific cause, the big question is whether it's just a passing interest or the beginning of a funding stream that will grow much bigger and could, literally, last for decades.  

Case in point: Sean Parker's recent $1 million gift to the Cancer Research Institute for cancer immunotherapy work. 

Parker's fortune currently stands at around $2 billion, and he's said that he's seeding his new foundation with $450 million. So his seriousness about funding cancer research, and especially immunotherapy work, matters a lot to people in this field—now just now, but potentially for a long time to come. (See IP's profile of Sean Parker.)

So what's the deal with that $1 million gift?

The deal is that it's definitely no one-off donation. On the contrary, all signs point to a serious commitment to Parker in this area. Here's why:

First, Parker has already been supporting immunotherapy research and the Cancer Research Institute for some time, and has given substantial support at CRI's Cancer Immunology Translational Research Dream Team, jointly funded by CRI and Stand Up To Cancer. (Parker also is a backer of Stand Up To Cancer.)Parker told the Wall Street Journal that he's given $20 million for immunotherapy research so far. So that $1 million was just the latest gift, as opposed to something new. 

Second, this is a personal cause for Parker, as it so often is for funders in the medical research space. (See IP's Life Savers: A Guide to Individual Giving for Health and Medicine.) As the WSJ reports: "Mr. Parker's hobby in immunology stems from having family members with 'severe' autoimmune disorders, he said. It was about 15 years ago when he became fascinated with the field."

Okay, I think it's safe to say that if Parker has been interested in this issue for nearly half his life, it is no passing fancy. 

Third, many tech funders want to engage in game-changing philanthropy, just as they have engineered breakthroughs in their business careers. Parker obviously sees this potential with his support of cancer immunotherapy research. As he said at CRI's fall gala, where he announced his $1 million gift, "It is my firm belief, and a belief that I think is shared by most people in this room, that the end of cancer is actually closer at hand than anyone outside of this room even realizes." If the guy thinks he can actually help cure cancer, he's probably going to stick with it. 

Fourth, Parker has said he will stick with it. Parker told the WSJ that his cancer immunotherapy funding is "the most important thing I could be doing with my time and, maybe, the most important thing I could be doing with my life."

So what does all this mean for the cancer research field? Well, obviously the Cancer Research Institute is sitting pretty here. Parker is the kind of mega-donor that every nonprofit fantasizes about. But lots of other research outfits may well see Sean Parker cancer money over time. Why? Because major funders in a given space often don't put all their eggs into one basket. Or content themselves with just one approach or institution. Often they'll flood the zone over time, funding a number of researchers and groups that might make the big breakthrough. 

If I were running a cancer research group, I'd make it my business to know Sean Parker.