When Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan welcomed their daughter, Max, into the world in December 2015, it was a birth announcement with a bang: They unveiled the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a limited liability company intended to “advance human potential and promote equality.” They funded it with 99% of their Facebook shares, then valued at about $45 billion.
On Wednesday, the pair announced the initiative's biggest investment to date: at least $3 billion over the next decade to an all-star team of engineers and scientists who will search for breakthroughs and develop tools to tackle the most common diseases — heart disease, cancer, infectious disease, and neurological disease. The goal? "Cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century." (No big deal.)
"That doesn't mean that no one will ever get sick," Chan said during an event at UC San Francisco, the university where she trained to become the pediatrician she is today after meeting Zuckerberg at Harvard University. "But it does mean our children and their children could get sick a lot less. And when they do, we should be able to detect and treat it or at least manage it as an ongoing condition."
At times tearing up, Chan cited her difficult experiences as a doctor — "from making a devastating diagnosis of leukemia, to sharing with a family they were unable to resuscitate their child" — in showing her that "we are at the limit of what we understand about the human body and disease." "We want to push back that boundary," she said.
Curing, preventing, or managing "all diseases" in the foreseeable future is a lofty goal, to put it mildly, and the announcement was met with more than a little skepticism.
But the couple have assembled an impressive team to at least attempt this feat. Chan Zuckerberg Science is led by Cori Bargmann of Rockefeller University, whose work has investigated how neurons and genes affect behavior. And the first effort is a $600 million, 10-year "biohub" at UC San Francisco that will bring together researchers from that university, as well as nearby UC Berkeley and Stanford University. Leading it are two prominent Bay Area scientists: Stanford bioengineer and physicist Stephen Quake and UC San Francisco's Joe DeRisi, who studies the underlying genetics of infectious diseases. Their initial focus, they said, will be on constructing a "cell atlas" — a characterization of all the cell types in the human body — and developing new ways to detect, respond to, treat, and prevent infectious disease.
Programmers will work alongside scientists on these kinds of problems, an interdisciplinary approach that fits Zuckerberg and Chan's respective backgrounds. Zuckerberg described his own optimism for the future as rooted in an "engineering mindset." "It's this belief you can take any system, no matter how complex," he said, "and make it much, much better than it is today, whether it's code, hardware, biology, a company, an education system, a government — anything."
This initiative isn't the couple's first contribution to health and medicine. Not far from the site of Wednesday's event is San Francisco's public hospital, which was recently renamed the Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center after Chan and Zuckerberg donated $75 million toward its equipment and technology last year. Last year, Facebook said its engineers had developed personalized-learning software for a public school system. And Chan is opening a free school in East Palo Alto with a dual focus on health and education.
The couple's philanthropy efforts have been controversial in the past; in 2010, they donated $100 million to Newark, New Jersey public schools, an effort that critics described as poorly managed. Zuckerberg defended it.
On Wednesday, Zuckerberg and Chan stressed that they had done their homework over the last two years, "talking to scientists ranging from Nobel Prize laureates to graduate students," as Chan put it. "We've learned a lot and we know we have a lot more to learn."
At the end of the event, they got an endorsement from someone who's been in their shoes: Bill Gates, whose foundation with his wife Melinda Gates has also backed projects tackling everything from public health to education. "This idea of curing and preventing all diseases by the end of the century," Gates said, "that's very bold, very ambitious, and I can't think of a better partnership to take it on."