In the last few years, tech billionaire Sean Parker, of Facebook and Napster fame, has emerged as a top philanthropist who's put his money where his mouth is. Nor has he been shy about promoting his own views on charitable giving.
Back in June, Parker published a widely discussed manifesto on philanthropy, suggesting (among other things) that his fellow hacker elite donate their excess billions early and quickly during their lifetimes—rather than transferring their cash to big foundations to continue good works into future generations. With his recent $10 million give for research into autoimmune diseases, Parker seems to be executing that strategy.
The give follows Parker's $4.5 million donation this year to UCSF's Malaria Elimination Initiative, and December's $24 million to Stanford University School of Medicine for allergy research focused on immune systems. He has also given millions for cancer research, and armed his newly formed eponymous philanthropic foundation with a $600 million war chest, which he has described as just the "first tranche" of his charitable spending.
While the focus of Parker's giving will be super familiar to any historian of philanthropy—tackling health challenges was among the top priorities of John D. Rockefeller, as well as other early modern philanthropists—the scale of his giving early in life, as well his lean foundation infrastructure, points to some of the ways that the new donors are actually different from earlier philanthropists.
The new Parker Foundation gift, to the Diabetes Center at University of California, San Francisco, will establish and support the Sean N. Parker Autoimmune Research Laboratory. The lab looks for new treatments for autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and rheumatoid arthritis.
(In case you missed it in the paragraph above, clearly another way that Parker is the same as more established philanthropists is that he's not above claiming naming rights with a gift.)
One of the world's biggest health threats, autoimmune diseases are dangerous conditions in which the immune system goes sideways and attacks the body's own tissues, rather that doing its real job of keeping us healthy. More than 80 autoimmune diseases affect up to 22 million Americans. They include problems like organ transplant rejection that add a substantial element of risk for transplant recipients. Federal health officials peg the cost of treating autoimmune conditions in the U.S. at $100 billion, every year.
The new autoimmune lab will research the field of immune tolerance to find new therapies for organ transplant rejection and autoimmunity. They'll try to develop a new generation of immune tolerance therapies that aim to halt or prevent autoimmune diseases, rather than suppress immune function, as do many current treatments.
"The progress over the past two decades in our understanding of the immune dysregulation that results in autoimmunity has been extraordinary and points us in the direction of immune regulation as a direct target for disease intervention," Jeffrey A. Bluestone, PhD, the UCSF immunologist who will lead the lab, said in a press release.
In his philanthropy manifesto, Parker also implored tech givers to focus on "hackable problems" that are ready to be solved. Medical research always seems to take too long—we're still fighting Nixon's war on cancer, right?—but Parker is a smart guy who talks to other smart people: Maybe autoimmune diseases are ready to be hacked. Comprising conditions like diabetes, they certainly need to be hacked—the sooner, the better.