Yuri Milner: The Tech Billionaire Who Puts Science at Center Stage

Aug 18, 2017 | Greggory Moore | Best of Best
Yuri Milner: The Tech Billionaire Who Puts Science at Center Stage

image by: Martin Wasserman

He's somewhat reinvented tech investment strategies, but what this would-be physicist cares about most is the success of scientific endeavor. And he's putting his money where his mouth is.

Putin. Chechnya. The annexation of Crimea. Meddling with foreign elections. Supporting the Assad regime. Murdering political dissidents. It seems like everything about Russia in recent years is bad news. But Yuri Milner is a notable exception. Named for the first human to orbit the Earth, Milner's meteoric ascendency in the business world has led him to become one of the planet's primary supporters of scientific research.

It might have gone differently had he himself been slightly more scientifically inclined. But scientifically inclined he was. In 1985 Milner earned a degree in theoretical physics from Moscow University and was well on his way to Ph.D. in particle physics. But in 1990, disappointed in his abilities, he dropped out of the program and began his business career.

Rome was not built in a day, they say, and Milner's career started modestly. While still in school Milner began delivering old personal computers on the Soviet Union's gray market (not quite legal, not quite illegal). His father, a notable Soviet academic who authored dozens of books on American business practices, was none too pleased, and within a year daddy used his connections to make Milner the first non-émigré from the U.S.S.R. to matriculate in the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, one of the world's elite places to study business.

After earning his MBA, Milner went to work for the World Bank in Washington, D.C. But it wasn't until he left the World Bank for brokerage firm Alliance-Menetep, his first active step into the world of venture capital, that the cornerstone for his personal financial empire was laid. Since then "Milner has made himself a billionaire and inserted himself atop the pecking order in Silicon Valley by redefining how tech investing is done," says Parmy Olson in Forbes, noting that in 2011 a 10% stake in Facebook and 5% stake in both Groupon and Zynga were merely the most headline-grabbing of his Internet holding company Digital Sky Technologies' (DST) many investments. Always forward-looking, in an April 2016 Bloomberg interview Milner noted that a full 40% of DST Global's deployed capital is invested in China.

But if you're reading this here, you're not looking for an in-depth profile on what a business whiz Milner is, nor are you trying to glean investment strategies. Where things get interesting for us is the point where Milner turns from simply making money to using that money in the effort to create a better world. That point is 2012, when (as The New York Times put it in late 2016) Milner "hand[ed] out $3 million apiece to nine theoretical physicists, in the belief that physicists are equal to rock stars and deserve to be paid and celebrated like them."

Shortly afterward, Milner and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg were part of a small cadre that founded the Breakthrough Prize Foundation, which awards at least $3 million annually to an individual in each of the fields of fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics. In practice, though, it's turned out to be much more than that. For example, at the most recent Breakthrough Prize ceremony—which the Times calls "[t]he biggest prize payday in science" ($3 million is the largest individual monetary prize in all of science)—a total of $25 million was given out, including $600,000 split up among 10 "early career" researchers in physics and mathematics; and $400,000 worth of educational prizes to two high-school students (along with their teachers and schools) who made science videos.

The Foundation also handed out an additional $3 million earlier in the year to a trio of researchers whose discovery of gravitational waves confirmed a prediction made by Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity. Since its founding, the Foundation has handed out over $200 million in prizes.

The direct benefit of such prizes is obvious: to encourage and reward those working in a field whose stars are far less well supported than their counterparts in sports and entertainment. But Milner has a broader ulterior motive. "Recognition of science among the general public is lower than it should be, partly because it is not easy to explain," he told Discover earlier this year. "We need to explain science better, communicate it to a wider audience and celebrate it. Because, in the end, science is really the biggest asset our civilization has."

That's part of why the Breakthrough awards ceremony is such a posh, Oscar-style affair: to attract attention. And with sports and entertainment luminaries like Jeremy Irons, Alex Rodriguez, Vin Diesel, Kevin Durant, and Sienna Miller in attendance at the 2017 gala—which was hosted by Morgan Freeman and featured a performance by Alicia Keys—it seems to be working. The event is now broadcast live on the National Geographic channel and subsequently on the Fox network. “Science is universal,” said Milner. “Tonight it brought together some of the world’s greatest actors, sportsmen, musicians, academics, entrepreneurs, astronauts, and—last but not least—scientists, to celebrate what the human mind can achieve. And it brought in a live audience from across the planet.”

The $3 million comes with no strings attached. Recipients are free to take cash to Vegas and bet it all on black, if they do desire. But because the winners are tend to be the sort of folk who are dedicating their lives to science with the aim of benefiting humankind, it's no surprise that the generosity of the Breakthrough Prize is having a "pay it forward" sort of ripple effect. For example, Stephen Elledge, who was honored in December "for elucidating how eukaryotic cells sense and respond to damage in their DNA and providing insights into the development and treatment of cancer," told his alma mater Harvard University that he plans to apply a significant portion of his award toward philanthropic causes, including science education. Meanwhile, Huda Yahya Zoghbi, honored at the same ceremony "for discoveries of the genetic causes and biochemical mechanisms of spinocerebellar ataxia and Rett syndrome, findings that have provided insight into the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative and neurological diseases," told the Houston Chronicle that she plans to donate the majority of her prize money to support education and research initiatives.

"The idea is to honor people who've come before but focus on the next generation," Zoghbi says. "They're the ones who will make the next advances. [… The Breakthrough Prize provides] a platform to inspire young people I probably wouldn't [otherwise be able to] reach."

But Milner's vision for the Breakthrough Foundation extends further still. In 2015 Breakthrough Listen, "the largest ever scientific research program aimed at finding evidence of civilizations beyond Earth," was inaugurated. The program's goals include surveying the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth with unprecedented accuracy and sensitivity, including a scan of the center of Milky Way and the entire galactic plane, as well as to listens for messages from the 100 nearest galaxies. The program is committed to run until 2025 at a cost of $100 million.

Then there's Breakthrough Starshot, maybe the first real-world program to get us an up-close look at other stars. Those stars are the three that comprise Alpha Centauri, a three-star star system and our sun's closest solar neighbor. At 4.37 light-years away, we've a long way to go before we get there, but in April of last year Milner was joined by renowned physicist Stephen Hawking to explain how the possibility of getting nanoprobes to perform a flyby of Alpha Centauri may be moving from the theoretical to the doable. It will take 20 years at the inside to muster the necessary technology, then (if the physicists are right) 20 years for the probes to cover the expanse of space, plus about another 4.37 years the data to travel from the probes to Earth—not to mention the estimated $5–$10 billion price tag. But it's a start, and Milner has already put up an initial $100 million, which should cover the first five to 10 years of research and development.

While there may be practical value in Breakthrough Starshot—the flyby will include Proxima Centauri b, the closest known planet beyond our solar system and one that lies within the "habitable zone," the range of distance from a star that makes it a possible candidate for human life—the project has more to do with pure exploration and advancing science for science's—and our—sake, even when we have no way of knowing what benefits will result. It's the kind of thinking and investing that led Hawking to label Milner "something of a visionary" in Time magazine last year.

"He sees that while there are many good causes and pressing problems, ultimately our chances of thriving as a species depend on tending and feeding the precious flame of knowledge," Hawking wrote. "His investments take the long view. Shifting the culture toward one more committed to science and its virtues of curiosity and reason. Supporting fundamental but underfunded quests, such as the search for life in the universe and a path to interstellar travel. Moon-shot projects that may take decades but, if they succeed, will transform our relationship to the cosmos."

Meanwhile, in May here on Earth the Breakthrough Prize announced a partnership with ResearchGate, a professional digital network built by scientists for scientists (currently totaling 12 million across numerous disciplines in 193 countries), helping them connect with each other and share their work not only within the network but with the general public at no cost. The partnership with the Breakthrough Prize means more opportunity for members and the scientific community in general, but also another means by which to spread the gospel of science as widely as possible. As much as anything, Milner is on a mission to help further what he calls "the democratisation of knowledge."

"[S]cientists are realising that a crucial part of the job is communicating their ideas—and their excitement—to the public," Milner wrote in The Economist late last year. "As access to knowledge becomes universal, it may kindle the desire for more. So although most of us can’t predict the future, we can hope that in the coming year, we see the emergence of a knowledge culture, in which more of us are invested in the quest that we were born for: the quest to know."

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly, GreaterLongBeach.com, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information: greggorymoore.com

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