How Silicon Valley will make superstars of scientists

Science, Technology 2013-02-20

What would you expect to get if people from Google, Facebook and Apple came together for a grand and expensive projects? Well for the cynics answering “lawsuits” the actual response is a much more exciting and progressive one. Introducing the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, a $3 million dollar each prize to reward research into curing diseases and extending life, totalling $33 million across 11 winners.

Led by Russian philanthropist and entrepreneur Yuri Milner, the awards are similar to last year’s physics-focused awards, which Milner also inaugurated. This time though he enlists two of the brightest and most influential men in all of technology, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and the hoodie-clad billionaire in need of no introduction, Facebook’s own Mark Zuckerberg, along with wife Priscilla Chan, a medicine graduate. Add into the mix Anne Wojcicki, founder of genetics company 23andMe, also the wife of Brin, and chairman of Apple, Arthur Levinson, himself fomer CEO of biotech company Genetech, and you’ve something of a dream team for life sciences and public engagement. Milner states “Young people will hopefully get the message that not only the careers in sports or entertainment can get a public recognition.”

“Priscilla and I are honored to be part of this,” said Mark Zuckerberg. “We believe the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences has the potential to provide a platform for other models of philanthropy, so people everywhere have an opportunity at a better future.”

Under the pattern of the now-annual awards, these winners will form part of a panel to choose the next set. The award can be won more than once and, unlike the Nobel’s limit of 3, can be awarded to as many collaborators as necessary.

For life sciences the effect of the award could be tremendous, it’s already suggested that the industry could see the same upturn in profitability and desirability that the computer science industry did. A spirit of freeform innovation, heavily publicized and incredibly-well backed financially. Perhaps the first of a new breed of life sciences superstar will find himself echoing Milner’s words, himself saying – “I think we will see some sort of merger between the people with the engineering skills and the people with the life sciences skills”. While life sciences is by no means a struggling industry, if afforded the same momentum and creativity as the early world wide web, by attracting the most innovative and ambitious graduates, the potential for real world progress is almost immeasurable.

On a personal level, working in the arena of digital marketing, it’s heartening to see the giants of the internet age extend such large philanthropic gestures in a way that will see massive positive media coverage. The charitable contributions of these individuals such as Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and organisations such as Google are often overlooked in a field dominated by stories of privacy intrusions or backhanded tactics. It’s important that these huge megaliths of the internet landscape can feed back in a positive momentum for improvement and betterment, and through this award no-one can doubt the philanthropic sincerity behind some of these major players in the industry.

In many cases there can be little doubt that Facebook, Google and Apple hold more power over the day to day lives of the average person than any other trio of companies – but that’s something to celebrate, not fear, if that power is used as constructively as this.




Here’s a detailed list of the winners

1 Cornelia I Bargmann
Torsten N Wiesel professor and head of the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behaviour at the Rockefeller University. Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
For the genetics of neural circuits and behavior, and synaptic guidepost molecules.
2 David Botstein
Director and Anthony B Evnin professor of genomics. Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics at Princeton University.
For linkage mapping of Mendelian disease in humans using DNA polymorphisms.
3 Lewis C Cantley
Margaret and Herman Sokol professor and director of the cancer centre at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York-Presbyterian hospital.
For the discovery of PI 3-Kinase and its role in cancer metabolism.
4 Hans Clevers
Professor of molecular genetics at Hubrecht Institute.
For describing the role of Wnt signalling in tissue stem cells and cancer.
5 Titia de Lange
Leon Hess professor, head of the Laboratory of Cell Biology and Genetics, and director of the Anderson Centeer for Cancer Research at Rockefeller University.
For research on telomeres, illuminating how they protect chromosome ends and their role in genome instability in cancer.
6 Napoleone Ferrara
Distinguished professor of pathology and senior deputy director for basic sciences at Moores Cancer Centre at the University of California, San Diego.
For discoveries in the mechanisms of angiogenesis that led to therapies for cancer and eye diseases.
7 Eric S Lander
President and founding director of the Eli and Edythe L Broad Institute of Harvard and MIT. Professor of biology at MIT. Professor of systems biology at Harvard Medical School.
For the discovery of general principles for identifying human disease genes, and enabling their application to medicine through the creation and analysis of genetic, physical and sequence maps of the human genome
8 Charles L Sawyers
Chair, human oncology and pathogenesis programme at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Centre. Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.
For cancer genes and targeted therapy.
9 Bert Vogelstein
Director of the Ludwig Center and Clayton Professor of Oncology and Pathology at the Johns Hopkins Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center. Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.
For cancer genomics and tumor suppressor genes.
10 Robert A Weinberg
Daniel K Ludwig professor for cancer research at MIT and director of the MIT/Ludwig Centre for Molecular Oncology. Member, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research
For characterisation of human cancer genes.
11 Shinya Yamanaka
Director of the Centre for iPS Cell Research and Application, Kyoto University. Senior investigator and the LK Whittier Foundation investigator in stem cell biology at the Gladstone Institutes. Professor of anatomy at the University of California, San Francisco,