Board meetings at the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a research center backed by Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg, his wife Priscilla Chan and LinkedIn cofounder Reid Hoffman, always kick off in the same way.
Each quarter, a promising young scientist funded by the Biohub is invited to a conference room at the Palo Alto offices of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the family’s philanthropic investment group. That’s where Zuckerberg takes a hiatus from email to spend a little time learning about science.
Last April, that scientist was Markita Landry, a chemical engineer who runs a lab at UC Berkeley. Landry was among the first researchers to get funding from the Biohub for a multi-year effort to develop tools to measure the chemistry of the brain. Landry shared some of her progress so far. Then Zuckerberg chimed in with a series of questions about the time it would take for her technology to be implemented, and the kind of influence it would have on human lives.
Landry told the board that her eventual goal was to test the effectiveness of drugs prescribed for mental health conditions, like depression, which is much-needed in the medical community.
“As scientists, we tend to think about moving in increments of weeks or months, but Mark prompted me to talk about the potential impact in years or even decades,” Landry explained.
Few scientists get such dedicated time with the world’s most famous entrepreneur. But the meetings also give Zuckerberg a brief break from the daily battles of running a public company to nerd out for a while. It also means some face-time with Chan, who stopped practicing medicine last year to head up CZI full-time, as well as Hoffman, a longtime Facebook investor and friend, and CZI science chief Cori Bargmann. Academic representatives from Stanford, Berkeley and UC San Francisco also attend, including the Biohub’s co-leaders Joe DeRisi and Steve Quake.
Zuckerberg could use the breathing room. Facebook has taken hit after hit to its reputation in the past 18 months, most notably with the claims that Russian operatives and a shadowy political consultancy called Cambridge Analytica used Facebook to manipulate voter behavior, and that Facebook didn’t do enough to stop it. That prompted many of the company’s critics to wonder whether Zuckerberg failed to appreciate the impact of the tools he created, and whether he lacks the moral leadership to right the ship.
In the meantime, Zuckerberg has begun to use the fortune he earned from creating one of the world’s most valuable companies to invest in CZI. In October, he revealed that he plans to sell up to 75 million shares, worth more than $12 billion at the time, by March 2019 to fund the project. He’s able to do that because of Facebook’s dual-class share structure, which allows him to retain voting control over the company’s big decisions even as he sells a huge portion of his stake.
He’s holding true to his word: This year alone, Zuckerberg has already sold nearly 29 million shares, garnering more than $5.3 billion for CZI.
CZI has been around now for about two and a half years, and has ballooned to 250 employees, with about half of them hailing from the technology sector. It’s still early days for any non-profit venture, but the organization is far enough along now to have a few core theses that it’s starting to test in the real world.
One of CZI’s stated missions is “supporting scientific research to cure, prevent and manage all diseases in our children’s lifetime.”
Zuckerberg shared a few more details onstage in a 2016 conference call, where he declared “we have a real shot at preventing, curing or managing” most diseases in the next 100 years, particularly heart disease, cancer, stroke, neurodegenerative and infectious diseases. This followed the couple’s pledge to their newborn daughter Max, in December 2015, that they would give away 99 percent of the value of their Facebook shares to “advance human potential and promote equality.”
Some have criticized the mission statement as hype, which makes the task seem easier than it is. But it also earned some muted praise from another notable philanthropist, Bill Gates, who told the New Yorker in a recent interview that Zuckerberg’s plans are “very safe,” because he won’t be around long enough for the article that says he overcommitted. And many in the scientific community view it as aspirational.
For their part, CZI employees say they view the mission statement as their north star. And they view it as a reflection of their willingness to collaborate with other scientists, not an ego-driven mantra to do it all themselves.
“I agree that it would be a tough sell if we were a research institution thinking that we alone are going to cure, prevent and manage all disease,” said Marc Malandro, the CZI science team’s vice president of operations.
“But what we’re talking about doing is developing data, enabling scientists, funding scientists, and helping drive culture change around open science.”
In an emailed statement, Chan herself acknowledged that the mission is “ambitious,” but added “if we focus on empowering scientists with tools to unlock their work and the field — that goal could be within our reach.”
“From my career, I’ve found that breaking down silos that exist across the health and education systems often lead to big breakthroughs — so that is one focus of our work,” said Chan.
For instance, CZI is one of the biggest backers of an initiative called the Human Cell Atlas, which aims to map out every single cell in the human body. That would represent an example of a new kind of data-set that cannot be achieved by a single scientist or group.
“It’s very much predicated on sharing of data on taking a very difficult problem and recognizing it won’t be done by one or two big academic centers,” said Jonah Cool, a program manager and scientist at CZI.
Another project is a $12.5 million effort to bring more engineering tools to the field of imaging. Once the application process closes, 10 to 15 imaging scientists will be given funding for three to five years of research at imaging centers across the country.
“We’re thinking about many levels of challenges that scientists face,” explained Jeremy Freeman, manager of the five-person strong computational biology group at CZI, who’s helping run the imaging project.
“There’s a lot of different cultures in science and I think we’re trying in a few different ways to move the culture to one that is more aligned with openness and collaboration.”
Here’s a sampling of other projects that are meant to encourage collaboration among scientific researchers:
- CZI acquired a research search engine called Meta which is working to help scientists find relevant papers more easily
- It partnered with New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory to help develop its bioRxiv service for biologists to share and search for scientific papers.
- It’s working with protocols.io, a start-up building a repository for life-sciences researchers to share information about methods; it refers to itself as a “Github for life sciences methods.”
- On Friday, it announced that it will join an advisory group and provide a $150,000 grant for ASAPbio, which stands for “accelerating science and publication in biology,” to bring more transparency to life sciences communication.
Freeman said CZI is particularly interested in figuring out how to support scientific efforts that are already underway, rather than thinking that it can solve these problems alone. “There are areas where that’s happening in a grassroots way and we want to encourage it.”
That’s similar to the Initiative’s work on education, another focus area, where it’s engineers are helping develop personalized learning software for students at the Summit Public Schools system. That was born out of a realization that it would be more effective for the organization to figure out what’s working in education, health, or another area, and support that.
“We believe that greater collaboration across science and technology is key to giving more people an equal shot at living healthy and prosperous lives,” said Chan. “We’re proud to play a role in making that happen.”
In conversations with a dozen of the group’s employees and its close associates, two things became very clear about the organization.
First, it views itself as an entirely separate and distinct entity from Facebook, although a few engineers have migrated over from there.
And second, the couple is highly involved. It’s not a token philanthropic effort for them.
Zuckerberg himself attends many of the important meetings, including the Biohub board meetings, two deep dives a year on the Human Cell Atlas and reviews for some of the newer initiatives like criminal justice and affordable housing.
Facebook analysts say they’re not all that concerned by the level of attention Zuckerberg pays to CZI, or that he’s selling stock to fund it.
“I don’t think this is a huge risk because he is funding this foundation with his Facebook stock,” said Brian Yacktman, chief investment officer of YCG Investments, which owns over $5 million worth of Facebook shares.
“He’s hugely incentivized to keep Facebook strong, not to mention the fact that Facebook is his creation and legacy.”
Yacktman also praises Zuckerberg for delegating at Facebook so that he can spend time on outside initiatives, including his philanthropy.
“This is no Elon Musk situation, who’s seemingly very hard to work with based on the incredibly high employee turnover at Tesla – at Facebook, the talent hardly ever leaves,” he said.
Zuckerberg does attend meetings to remain up to speed on CZI’s investments, but it’s Chan who really runs the show day to day.
Employees say that when she’s not on the road, she’s working out of the CZI offices and is readily available to answer questions or work through a problem. She typically spends two days in Palo Alto and three days in Redwood City, where the science group is based, and sits out in the open rather than in an office so she can chat with employees.
“Sometimes we go off on scientific tangents,” says Malandro from the science team. “But Priscilla is there to ground us in the human impact of what we’re doing.”
Malandro shared an example. “The other day, Priscilla asked if I’d seen the NPR report about the Human Cell Atlas using single cell data to identify a new lung cell type in humans,” he recalled.
“It so happens that a lot of people this could help us develop a better understanding of cystic fibrosis,” he continued. Cystic fibrosis is a serious genetic disorder that mostly affects the lungs, and impacts about 30,000 people in the U.S. alone. Symptoms include difficulty breathing and coughing up mucus, as a result of having a lot of lung infections.
“For us, it’s easy to get enamored with the technology, but Priscilla spent a few minutes telling everyone in the room about kids who have this disease, where their parents have to break up the mucus in their child’s lungs, and how hard it can be to treat them.”
While it sounds simple enough to get scientists to collaborate, it requires years of planning to get it working.
That was certainly the case with Biohub, which represents an experiment of sorts to find out whether the Bay Area’s three biggest academic powerhouses — UC Berkeley, Stanford and UC San Francisco — could make discoveries together.
“Mark and Priscilla had this vision where they wanted the three big Bay Area universities to come together,” said UC San Francisco’s DeRisi, who co-leads the organization with Stanford’s Quake. “That meant years of lawyers thinking through every detail, down to who waters and pays for the office cactus.”
DeRisi says the collaboration is working well, primarily because the funders realized that these questions — ranging from the big ones, like intellectual property rights, to the mundane, like watering the cactus — needed to be ironed out first.
The organization also borrowed some of its core mandates about how to find and fund talent from its backers.
It chooses scientists to fund by honing in on “the person, not the project,” says DeRisi. That’s very similar to how Silicon Valley venture capitalists choose companies to back.
The application process was designed to be super simple, with questions like: “tell me the most impactful thing you’ve done for science” and “share your vision for the future.” DeRisi said he looked for “brilliant people,” and not a step-by-step execution plan, which might not allow for the “magic of basic science.”
The Biohub is also staffing up with computational scientists and data scientists, which are notoriously challenging to hire in Silicon Valley. It can’t compete with companies like Apple and Facebook, but many of the technologists it hires are interested in “doing something awesome for science.” Some of them already made their money in tech, and like many others in Silicon Valley, are looking to invest in their brilliant minds into serving humanity rather than creating yet another app designed to get people to click on ads.
And that’s fundamentally what CZI, and the efforts it funds, is all about: Giving academics the funds and resources to work on projects that will have an impact, and giving technologists a way to create a lasting legacy.
“What we’re doing here is trying to make multiple big shots on goal, rather than making a single bet on a person or a disease,” said Malandro from the CZI science team.
“Those big diseases that are affecting a lot of people have a lot of money into them already, and ours would be incremental to what’s already being spent,” he explained. “So we’re looking to develop a more basic understanding of the pathways in biology to understand how any disease progresses, and that’s how I think we fundamentally advance science.”
Priscilla Chan sent along the following statement about her work at CZI:
Our efforts in science center around our mission to help cure, prevent, or manage all disease by the end of the century, which I know is an ambitious goal — but if we focus on empowering scientists with tools to unlock their work and the field — that goal could be within our reach. As a physician, I’ve been overwhelmed at the pace of advances in basic science in just the past decade, and I’ve thought — what if we could accelerate those discoveries to get at the biggest problems in science and medicine? From my career, I’ve found that breaking down silos that exist across the health and education systems often lead to big breakthroughs — so that is one focus of our work. From computational biologists and software engineers working with the larger scientific community on tools for the Human Cell Atlas, to facilitating exciting collaborations between Stanford, Berkeley, and UCSF through our support of the Biohub, we believe that greater collaboration across science and technology is key to giving more people an equal shot at living healthy and prosperous lives. We’re proud to play a role in making that happen.