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Facebook billionaire pours funds into high-risk research

Silicon Valley philanthropy project revives some grants rejected by a mainstream US biomedical funder.

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A dog with cancer is comforted by its owner.

Scientists are about to launch a clinical trial of a cancer vaccine for dogs.Credit: John Moore/Getty

After his plan to test a cancer vaccine for middle-aged pet dogs was rejected by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), inventor and biochemist Stephen Johnston sought funding outside the mainstream system. On 20 December, the Open Philanthropy Project, a grant-giving organization that is largely funded by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife Cari Tuna, announced that Johnston will receive US$6.4 million to test the vaccine he developed. His team at Arizona State University in Tempe is now poised to enrol its first pooches in a clinical trial.

The science-funding efforts of the Open Philanthropy Project, or Open Phil, have so far flown under the radar compared with other Silicon Valley funders. But that looks set to change. The organization, which was launched in 2011 but rebranded under its current name in 2014, has significantly boosted its spending to $200 million this year, of which around $40 million was on scientific research. And Chris Somerville, a biochemist and a scientific advisor to the organization, says OpenPhil’s total spending will rise by several times over the coming years.

Moskovitz, whose estimated net worth is more than $14 billion, and Tuna have said that they plan to give away most of their fortune during their lifetimes. It is likely that, in terms of impact on research, Open Phil will soon rival more well-known philanthropy vehicles, such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which awarded $50 million in life-sciences grants in 2017 to create a biohub in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Open Phil, based in San Francisco, California, acknowledges the high odds of failure of the basic research it funds and, for a private funder, publishes brutally honest assessments of its projects. These range from developing lab-made meat alternatives to a controversial genetic-engineering technology called gene drive. For its latest funding round, it asked scientists whose grant applications had been rejected by an NIH competition for risky research to dust off their proposals. Some 120 researchers resubmitted their requests, and the project awarded $10.8 million to four teams.

“My hope is Open Philanthropy can make the world safe for serendipity again,” says Ed Boyden, a neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge who won $3 million from the project in 2016. He is working to develop a technology that swells tissue to make it easier to examine under a microscope.

Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna.

Dustin Moskovitz and Cari Tuna have said that they plan to give away most of their estimated US$14-billion fortune.Credit: Good Ventures

Neglected priorities

In a November 2017 blog post, the organization identified 11 priority areas in science, including tuberculosis, chronic pain and obesity, that it considers neglected by other funders.

It also has a long-standing interest in global health and animal welfare. In May, it gave $17.5 million to Target Malaria, a project based at Imperial College London that is developing gene-drive technology to control malaria-carrying mosquitoes. And in 2016, it invested an undisclosed amount in Impossible Foods, a firm in Redwood City, California, that is developing lab-made alternatives to meat.

Gregory Timp, a biophysicist at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, who has won $2 million to develop a technology to sequence proteins, says that the evaluation process involved rebutting each of the NIH’s critiques of his proposal and several rounds of interviews with scientist advisers. “They have scientific rigour couched in California casual. Everything is informal, but they ask these piercing questions,” he says. Detailed explanations of why each project is funded accompany each award, which the organization publishes with the aim of making its analysis useful to other funders.

Katherina Rosqueta, founding executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, says that the group’s efforts to share their extensive research and justify their giving marks them out among private funders. “They have a highly analytical view. They have an appetite and skill in conducting research and sourcing information, and they’re willing to do that in a public and transparent way.”

Many philanthropists shy away from basic science because the pay-offs tend to be long term and the risks high, says Marc Kastner, president of the Science Philanthropy Alliance in Palo Alto, California, a coalition of foundations that advocates for private funding of basic science. But the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who bankroll organizations such as the Open Philanthropy Project and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative are used to long odds, says Kastner. “The risk-taking is not an issue for them. They don’t want to be supporting a sure thing.”

Nature 553, 10-11 (2017)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-017-08795-0
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