Opening the Spigot: A Look at How Chan Zuckerberg Science is Starting to Move Money

When we last checked in on the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, it had picked up backing from prominent venture capitalist Reid Hoffman, and was sounding like it might start to resemble a VC firm itself in some ways. 

Hoffman was saying the grantmaking and research initiative established by Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg could apply the lessons of Silicon Valley to disease research. Depending on which lessons we’re talking about, that could be a troubling path.


But looking at the first round of investigator grants from the Biohub—which is a project of Chan Zuckerberg Science, unveiled in September with an initial $3 billion commitment to basic research—it actually resembles aspects of Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) grantmaking. The big similarity is that the grants provide unrestricted, substantial funding to researchers over the course of five years, with the intention of letting their lines of work take them where they will. HHMI's big thing, close readers of IP will know, is that it invests in people as opposed to projects. 

The similarity makes sense, considering the Biohub's scientific advisory board includes Robert Tijan, former HHMI president, and longtime HHMI investigator and Breakthrough Prize winner Huda Zoghbi. Zuckerberg and Chan consulted with many scientists and science funders before launching. The resulting arrangement for CZ Biohub Investigators, who receive up to $1.5 million each over a five-year appointment, echoes the HHMI Investigator Program, although the latter awards larger sums and recently extended the appointments to seven years. The investigators are just one component of the Biohub, which will also include large collaborative projects like mapping the cells of the human body. 

A few other observations: 

• It’s all Bay Area, all the time. A lot of recipients got grants in this round—47, to be exact. But in keeping with the Biohub’s regional, collaborative focus, only researchers at three schools were awarded—Stanford, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of California, San Francisco. That’s a plus, in that it will be easier to cultivate community among appointees and actually create a hub. The downside is that it narrows the field of recipients, especially considering science research philanthropy already tends to be quite concentrated, with a finite number of grantmakers that might support promising work. Given all the grant money that may flow here over time, you could certainly see the logic of casting a wider net—and perhaps this outfit will do exactly that in future funding rounds. 

• The emphasis here is definitely on new ideas that might not otherwise find a home. That’s one aspect that does follow the startup ethos. As Biohub head Stephen Quake tells Nature, the hope is that researchers might be able to explore untested ideas that could later turn into NIH grants. On that note, it’s not clear if the appointment can be extended into a longer-term arrangement, or if it’s a one-shot kind of thing. 

• This is a diverse group of winners, and the Biohub is making that known. The first round is made up of 21 women and 26 men; 25 senior and 22 junior investigators. Philanthropy can play a much larger role in taking on diversity problems in science, and the Biohub is showing by example that there’s no reason an elite grant program can’t have a diverse cohort. 

Two other things are worth noting regarding the Biohub’s results, which have drawn some scrutiny. First, all published research will, indeed, be open access, but additionally, will go up on “preprint” sites prior to publication, a win for open science advocates. Researchers are still, however, allowed to file for patents, to be owned jointly by both the Biohub and appointees’ home universities, Nature reports.

Related: Hurry It Up: What Major Funders Are Doing to Speed Up Research Publishing

Silicon Valley's efforts to disrupt science research are justifiably met with skepticism, especially given this one's grandiose goal of "curing all disease." It will be interesting to see how CZS progresses. But the investigator program, at least, seems to be taking some good cues from the research community and other funders.