3:30 PM
Jun 08, 2017
 |  BC Innovations  |  Finance

The bio-tech bridge

How tech philanthropists are becoming new players in the biotech ecosystem

Editor's Note: This article was updated on Jun 14, 2017 at 12:07 PM PDT

Last year’s flurry of interest from tech titans has brought a wealth of new funding to translational science that is gaining them status as new and important players in the biotech ecosystem. With a heavy hands-on approach and eye towards disruption, the tech billionaires are carving a new mold in discovery philanthropy.

The entrepreneurs, headlined by Facebook Inc. CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Napster Inc. co-founder Sean Parker, and Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, have collectively committed almost $1 billion since the start of last year to create new bodies dedicated to advancing drug discovery and research that can transform medicine.

What sets them apart from traditional philanthropists is not only the size and scope of their funds, but the founders’ drive to accelerate change, bringing the mindset that worked in the tech world to set sky high goals for improving human health.

The Chan Zuckerberg Biohub (CZ Biohub), launched with $600 million by Zuckerberg together with spouse physician Priscilla Chan in September 2016, is the first investment of the $3 billion over ten years the pair pledged with the goal of “curing all diseases in our children’s lifetime.” Parker’s foundation set up the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy with $250 million in April 2016 to “turn cancer into a curable disease,” and Allen dedicated $100 million a month earlier, creating two new Allen Discovery Centers, at Stanford University and Tufts University respectively, to pioneer research in risky areas of research considered crucial by global thought leaders polled by the organization (see “Tech Philanthropy Research Initiatives”).

“It’s very different than the traditional model of bricks-and-mortar operation. That has its rightful place and is important, but this is a grander vision and a bigger experiment,” said Joe DeRisi, co-president of the CZ Biohub and a professor of biochemistry and biophysics at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF).

“It’s very different than the traditional model of bricks-and-mortar operation. That has its rightful place and is important, but this is a grander vision and a bigger experiment.”

Joe DeRisi, Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub

But behind the lofty ambitions are some concrete programs, and the players are gaining recognition as core members of the R&D community.

Indeed last month, Cori Bargmann, president of science for the Chan Zuckerberg Science Initiative, was one of 27 biomedical leaders who met with the president to make the case for strong federal government support for the NIH.

In fact, many see the tech billionaires as one solution to the real-term drop in funding from NIH.

“There’s a lot of opportunity in the translational sciences for connecting the science and medicine. And that needs a bunch of resources put into it that I guess in a previous day and age would have come from the government,” said Alexis Borisy, a partner at Third Rock Ventures.

Others say the funding is affecting the ecosystem beyond supplanting lost grants.

Jon Duane, a senior partner at McKinsey and Co. who advises companies in the life sciences industry, told BioCentury that tech philanthropists are already creating competition for top research discoveries.

“There is also interest from some academic medical centers looking to get financing for early stage biotech assets. They view this as a source of funding. That provides competition for traditional venture capital or pharma venture investors, so it’s another source of capital that could potentially increase valuations.”

However, while the institutes share hallmarks such as hands-on leadership and an embracement of high-risk research, their structures are different and they aim...

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