Since Chan Zuckerberg Science launched in September with the stated goal of ending disease this century, it's picked up steam and we’re gaining more insight into how the initiative will function—some of it concerning.
Back when the project kicked off, we expressed a measure of skepticism, but generally praised its commitment of $3 billion to basic science research over a long period of time, and its emphasis on building connections among researchers.
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CZI is also prioritizing drawing additional funding for science, another admirable goal, and a key piece of it just picked up a decent-sized chunk of $20 million. The funds come from Zuckerberg’s tech billionaire pal Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn, and wife Michelle Yee. Hoffman came up at PayPal, and since starting LinkedIn, has become a prolific venture capitalist.
The $20 million specifically goes toward the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub—one of a few endeavors CZS has started, including an online atlas of the body’s cells—which unites Stanford, UCSF, and UC Berkeley to collaborate on life sciences research. The Biohub also recently landed Stanford’s Peter S. Kim, joining Stephen Quake of Stanford and Joseph DeRisi of UCSF in leading the new endeavor.
Hoffman will also become a board member of the Biohub, and based on the announcement of the donation (on LinkedIn, of course), his take on the center sounds even more Silicon Valley-esque than it did in the initial unveiling.
“Biohub may precisely help cure disease the way that Silicon Valley has helped deploy software companies,” says Hoffman, in an actual quote that I honestly did not just make up.
To be fair, a lot of what he means is that Biohub is putting a big emphasis on engineering and computer science, which is a good thing. Many researchers would agree that institutions need to be better at multidisciplinary work that involves computing and data. The Cell Atlas project could be one such powerful example of this dynamic.
But he also says, “the approach will allow bold initial projects similar to a venture model” and references “deploying entrepreneurial scientists.” Hoffman closes with, “Entrepreneurship and technology can amplify and help realize human potential. This is part of what I love about Silicon Valley. It’s awesome to apply this to science, health and disease.”
There’s also the fact that a Buzzfeed analysis of Biohub’s contract found it retains the ability to keep discoveries proprietary and commercialize them, even though its president said early on that “everything we develop … will be available to all scientists everywhere.” It’s not unusual for research institutions to license their discoveries to companies, and one obvious upside to doing so is that the proceeds from licensing can be used to bankroll more research, creating a virtuous cycle. When Sean Parker rolled out his big cancer immunotherapy initiative earlier this year, he said that embracing this model would be a key to its sustainability over time. You can imagine a day when the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy doesn't depend on the largesse of its founder, but rather rolls forward with its own revenues, and such a future is conceivable for the Biohub, too. This kind of potential is what excites so many philanthropists about approaches to solving big problems that blend for-profit and not-for-profit tools.
You can see why Silicon Valley types might especially think this way. Venture capital firms get successful by making some good bets and then using their winnings to make even more bets, on a larger scale.
Of course, such firms are designed to benefit their investors, not humanity as a whole. And there is a clear tension between a pure open-source strategy and one that keeps an eye on commercialization. It will be interesting to see how this plays out with the Biohub. With Hoffman’s statement, though, the thing is sounding a bit like a tech startup incubator.
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There’s no doubt that Silicon Valley has made incredible innovations. But successful tech companies also don’t always prioritize public good, and often foster inequities, as we’ve seen with Uber and Airbnb, for example. So when I think of efforts to cure diseases, I’m not sure the software industry is the model we should embrace.
As Martin Levine wrote at Nonprofit Quarterly:
How CZI and its Biohub choose to act as their work brings results matters. Having the ability to control these critical decisions seemed to have been one of the reasons Zuckerberg and Chan chose to use an LLC. There is great profit to be made if their work results in significant breakthroughs. If they choose to share it at a cost to licensees, there may be great profits flowing back to the Biohub or to its owners. Depending on their pricing structure, such an approach might limit how quickly or widely its impact can be felt.
Again, there’s a lot of potential for good through CZI’s research initiative, and it’s still early. But it's evincing a certain attitude toward philanthropy that can be problematic—donors believing they know best how to solve problems, and therefore pattern the work they fund after their business successes.