What? On Wednesday a group of titans of the tech world gave away $33 million in “prizes” to young scientists that are working to find cures for some of the most pervasive human diseases. These grants were termed “Breakthrough Prizes” and they were awarded to 11 scientists that are working on projects to cure cancer, breakthroughs using stem cells and gene therapy. This was the largest donation in the history of science.
So what? This is an example of a social innovation. Through their support the donors were able open a space for innovation by providing the prizes. These prizes break down the traditional barriers to funding (e.g. strings attached to grants) for the scientists. One scientist was quoted as saying the the prize “will make life easy.” Additionally, these prizes leveled the playing field by providing the awards to burgeoning young scientists rather than awarding the prizes to eminent scholars in the fields of study that were already receiving a large amounts of grant money. These donors invited the exceptional by providing these young scientists with the tools make a name for them self and change the world in the process. These donors were agents of change because they removed the barriers (e.g. money) for these scientists in an effort to achieve their goal of finding cures to the most pervasive diseases of our day.
Now what? My favorite quote from Mark Zuckerberg was, “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.” This style of philanthropy basically takes a venture capital approach and could fundamentally change the way science is funded in the U.S. The donors plan to continue to award three $3 million dollar prizes annually. These donors were able to use the prizes as an instrument for social change.