Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Yuri Milner have teamed up to create the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation, which now offers the most lucrative annual prize in the history of science: A $33 million pot to be split among 11 people, with individual rewards worth $3 million apiece. By comparison, the monetary value of the Nobel prize is just $1.1 million.
The foundation announced the first 11 winners of the award on Wednesday. They will then be asked to help choose the recipients for future prizes.
"Our society needs more heroes who are scientists, researchers and engineers," Zuckerberg wrote on his Facebook page on Wednesday. "We need to celebrate and reward the people who cure diseases, expand our understanding of humanity and work to improve people's lives."
The Facebook founder, Google co-founder and prominent venture capitalist, respectively, hope this prize will re-energize the medical field to continue their endeavors to research and battle cancer, Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, among other medical maladies.
"With the mapping of the genome sequence there are expectations of significant progress in the next 10 or 20 years so I think the timing is really appropriate to create an incentive for the best scientific minds," Milner told the Guardian.
The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation was also co-founded by Anne Wojcicki and Priscilla Chan, the wives of Brin and Zuckerberg, respectively, as well as Art Levinson, chairman at Apple.
“I am delighted to announce the launch of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences and welcome its first recipients," Levinson said. “I believe this new prize will shine a light on the extraordinary achievements of the outstanding minds in the field of life sciences, enhance medical innovation, and ultimately become a platform for recognizing future discoveries.”
The company is a not-for-profit corporation, which is not surprising considering each founder’s links to philanthropy and the life sciences:
Zuckerberg and Chan were both ranked No. 2 on the annual list of America’s Most Generous Donors – behind only Warren Buffett -- both donating a whopping $3 billion in 2012; Zuckerberg may be too busy to stay focused on life sciences, but his wife Chan is focusing on a career in pediatrics.
“Priscilla and I are honored to be part of this,” Zuckerberg said. “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.”
Brin and his wife Wojcicki, who were both just two spots down on America’s Most Generous Donors list, donated a combined $222 million last year, with Wojcicki also investing a great deal of her time at genomics firm 23andMe, a company she co-founded in 2006.
“We are thrilled to support scientists who think big, take risks and have made a significant impact on our lives,” Wojcicki said. “These scientists should be household names and heroes in society.”
“Curing a disease should be worth more than a touchdown,” Brin added.
Milner, who founded Digital Sky Technologies in 2005, said he had personal reasons for helping jumpstart the Breakthrough Prize in Life And Sciences Foundation.
"I have two very close relatives with very bad diseases, one of them is cancer," Milner told The Guardian. “This is part of my personal connection with this prize."
All winners of the Breakthrough Prize will be invited to give a presentation “targeting a general audience,” which will be made available to the public to help keep citizens informed on the latest developments in the science and medical fields.
“Solving the enormous complexity of human diseases calls for a much bigger effort compared to fundamental physics and therefore requires multiple sponsors to reward outstanding achievements,” Milner said.
Here is the full list of this year’s inaugural winners, courtesy of The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences Foundation:
· Cornelia I. Bargmann
Torsten N. Wiesel Professor and Head of the Lulu and Anthony Wang Laboratory of Neural Circuits and Behavior at the Rockefeller University. Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.
For the genetics of neural circuits and behavior, and synaptic guidepost molecules
· David Botstein
Director of the Lewis-Sigler Institute for Integrative Genomics and the Anthony B. Evnin Professor of Genomics at Princeton University.
For linkage mapping of Mendelian disease in humans using DNA polymorphisms.
· Lewis C. Cantley
Margaret and Herman Sokol Professor and Director of the Cancer Center at Weill Cornell Medical College and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
For the discovery of PI 3-Kinase and its role in cancer metabolism.
· Hans Clevers
Professor of Molecular Genetics at Hubrecht Institute.
For describing the role of Wnt signaling in tissue stem cells and cancer.
· Titia de Lange
Leon Hess Professor, Head of the Laboratory of Cell Biology and Genetics, and Director of the Anderson Center for Cancer Research at the Rockefeller University.
For research on telomeres, illuminating how they protect chromosome ends and their role in genome instability in cancer.
· Napoleone Ferrara
Distinguished Professor of Pathology and Senior Deputy Director for Basic Sciences at Moores Cancer Center at the University of California, San Diego.
For discoveries in the mechanisms of angiogenesis that led to therapies for cancer and eye diseases.
· 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.
· Charles L. Sawyers
Chair, Human Oncology and Pathogenesis Program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator.
For cancer genes and targeted therapy.
· 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.
· Robert A. Weinberg
Daniel K. Ludwig Professor for Cancer Research at MIT and Director of the MIT/Ludwig Center for Molecular Oncology. Member, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research.
For characterization of human cancer genes.
· Shinya Yamanaka
Director of Center for iPS Cell Research and Application, Kyoto University. Senior Investigator, Gladstone Institutes, San Francisco.
For induced pluripotent stem cells.