In a rare interview, the Meta Platforms CEO and his pediatrician wife, who are Co-CEOs of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, discuss their plans to use technology to deepen understanding of human cells and tissues–and the impact they want it to have on human health.
By Kerry A. Dolan, Forbes Staff
Six and a half years ago, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan announced a $3 billion commitment to basic science research over a decade, including $600 million to create a biomedical research hub in San Francisco in collaboration with researchers from UC San Francisco, UC Berkeley and Stanford University. In late 2021 they promised another $3.4 billion toward science.
Today, the couple are announcing their new biohub in Chicago–to be funded with $250 million over a decade from that $6.4 billion from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. A collaboration among Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the Chicago Biohub will work to better understand how human tissues function, using tiny sensors it will develop.
“If you look at the history of science, most big advances are preceded by new tools to observe things.” -Mark Zuckerberg
In an exclusive interview that took place just weeks before Chan’s due date for the couple’s third child, Zuckerberg and Chan, both now 38, sat down with Forbes last week to discuss the new Biohub and how their support of science research differs from the traditional model. They also talked about their very lofty goals regarding curing or managing all diseases.
Much of their scientific giving is built around the idea that better tools, paired with a deeper understanding of human biology, can help accelerate finding cures for diseases, managing them or preventing them altogether. “If you look at the history of science, most big advances are preceded by new tools to observe things, not just in biology but [also] with telescopes and supercolliders,” Zuckerberg explains.
Chan and Zuckerberg initially conceived of biohubs as a way to jumpstart the development of such tools and discoveries. Unlike typical academic research labs backed by grants from the National Institutes of Health, the Chan Zuckerberg biohubs would partner with universities to take on big questions they wouldn’t tackle on their own, collaborate across scientific disciplines and come with a promise of at least a decade of funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
INSIDE CZI’S BIG SCIENCE PUSH
The new biohub in Chicago is slated to start operations in April, and the imaging institute will open later this year.
The first CZ Biohub, founded in 2016 and located across the street from UC San Francisco’s Mission Bay campus, has been working in two broad areas: creating systems that detect and respond to infectious disease, and furthering understanding of how healthy and diseased human cells work. Six months after the Covid-19 pandemic hit the U.S., the CZ Biohub and UC San Francisco released a study led by Biohub co-president Joe DeRisi, an infectious disease specialist and professor at UC San Francisco, of the BinaxNow rapid Covid-19 tests–which confirmed that tests were reliable. That study helped spur wider adoption of rapid tests in the Bay Area and California, says DeRisi.
Now, members of DeRisi’s team are working on a potentially faster, cheaper and more accurate way to diagnose malaria–a disease that kills more than 600,000 people a year (mostly children), using a microscope equipped with ultraviolet light and machine learning algorithms that detect malaria in a patient’s blood sample, explains Paul Lebel, a CZ Biohub engineer who designed and built the microscope. Several of the specialized microscopes are currently part of a trial at a clinic in Uganda that is run by a team from UC San Francisco.
To better understand the role of human cells, researchers at the CZ San Francisco Biohub led by Stephen Quake, a professor of bioengineering at Stanford and the Head of Science for CZI, joined a consortium that has assembled a first draft of the human cell atlas–nearly 500,000 cells from 24 human organs. The atlas “tells us what all the different cells in your body are doing in healthy and sometimes diseased states,” explains Chan. “That is only possible when you bring together a large community, where you put concerted efforts …to build that comprehensive resource.” Quake notes that each of the research papers for the human cell atlas have a whopping 160 authors on them. CZI has provided funding for the project overall.
The early successes of the first biohub inspired Chan and Zuckerberg to expand–and double down on their philanthropic science efforts. To that end, in December 2021, CZI announced that Chan and Zuckerberg would invest up to $3.4 billion more over 10 to 15 years. Of that amount, $1 billion will go to the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub Network. “We knew we wanted to do more of these,” says Chan. “The question was where and what.” Fifty eight proposals (collaborations among universities) came in from across the U.S. for the second biohub, and with help from a committee, Chan and Zuckerberg narrowed that down to 8 semifinalists, all of which, says Chan, had “something that we’d be excited to fund and be a part of.” The decision to choose Chicago came down to the strength of its proposal and the fact that these universities had previously shown that they could collaborate, Chan and Zuckerberg say.
To lead the Chicago Biohub, Chan and Zuckerberg selected Shana O. Kelley, a professor of chemistry and biomedical engineering at Northwestern who has focused on sensors and sensor technology, and has cofounded four companies based on technologies that have come out of her research. (One, Geneohm Sciences, was acquired by medical technology firm Becton Dickinson in 2006 for a reported $230 million.) Her expertise on sensors is tied to the groundbreaking work that the Chicago Biohub aims to tackle.
“The idea is to take human tissues and embed thousands of sensors into them, to make a completely new kind of measurement,” Kelley says via Zoom from Chicago. The experiments will use small samples of human tissue collected with consent during surgical procedures. Next, says Kelley, they will “watch what’s happening with cells and tissues–watch them communicating with one another to understand what happens when a tissue goes from being normal to being inflamed,” with the goal of comprehending how inflammation works and how it drives disease. More than 50% of deaths are attributed to diseases with some form of inflammation, she points out. The first experiments will start with skin tissue.
“This is the opportunity to do science the way we’ve always wanted to do it, with the constraints removed and the creativity just allowed to flow.” -Shana O. Kelley
The three universities each contribute an area of expertise to the Biohub, says Kelley: Northwestern is strong in sensing, University of Chicago excels in inflammation and in quantum sensing, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign researchers have developed microfabrication systems and the ability to make miniaturized devices, which will be needed for making the ultra-tiny sensors.
“It’s hard to explain how excited people are here–that we’re going to have a Biohub, that we’re going to have the opportunity to work on these really important problems,” Kelley beams. “This is the opportunity of a lifetime. This is the opportunity to do science the way we’ve always wanted to do it, with the constraints removed and the creativity just allowed to flow.”
Some of the typical constraints to research are the time and effort it takes to apply for funding. And some of the cutting edge work that the Chicago Biohub will take on might not have gotten money from the National Institutes of Health. “To get NIH funding you need to have a lot of preliminary data–and you have to have an idea that everybody agrees with,” says Kelley. “That doesn’t happen very often, especially with weird, out-of-the-box ideas that have the potential to be transformative.”
Chan, who attended medical school at UC San Francisco and worked as a pediatrician before cofounding and becoming Co-CEO of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, explains that their science philanthropy is, relatively speaking, small. “Science funding is a huge field and the NIH is the biggest player–they fund billions and billions of dollars every year. We’re always going to be tiny,” she says. “In all of our philanthropy we have to look for the niche that’s a good fit for what we bring to the table.”
That statement is quite a walk back for this power couple who, back in 2016, first announced plans to cure, manage and prevent all disease by the end of the century. What changed? Mostly messaging, Zuckerberg insists: “Mainly, we think it’s possible, and I generally just think it’s good to shoot for ambitious things,” he says about why they picked that goal. But then he quickly explains: “To be clear, we don’t think that we’re going to do this. The goal is to build tools so that way progress in the whole field can be accelerated.” That’s still a tall order.
“In all of our philanthropy we have to look for the niche that’s a good fit for what we bring to the table.” – Priscilla Chan
The biohubs are just one part of the CZI’s science activity. Last September Chan and Zuckerberg marked the launch at Harvard University of the Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence–named after Zuckerberg’s mother, Karen Kempner Zuckerberg, and supported with a $500 million pledge over 10 to 15 years to operate it. Later this year, the couple will open the Chan Zuckerberg Institute for Advanced Biological Imaging in Redwood City, California, and have allocated from $600 million to $900 million to support that institute over a decade. In all likelihood, there will be more biohubs. Quake, the Stanford professor who is Head of Science for CZI, is tasked as part of his job with launching new biohubs; he declined to say how many more are planned.
Science is also just one part of what the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative funds–though it is the biggest piece, in terms of dollars and people. The other broad areas are education and supporting communities in the Bay Area–with programs that address housing affordability and homelessness. Back in December 2015, to mark the birth of their first child, Chan and Zuckerberg pledged to direct 99% of their Facebook (now called Meta Platforms) stock over the course of their lives to “further the mission of advancing human potential and promoting equality by means of philanthropic, public advocacy, and other activities for the public good.” At the time, that was a $45 billion promise. Meta’s stock is now 65% more valuable, making their pledge worth more like $74 billion, $3.9 billion of which they’ve already dispensed, through both the CZI Foundation and through donor-advised funds. (CZI is set up as a limited liability company, which provides less transparency than a typical private charitable foundation.)
How do Zuckerberg and Chan fit the CZI Co-CEO work into their schedules? This is Chan’s full-time job–though she does still maintain her pediatric credentials and sometimes volunteers in that capacity. Her aim, she says, is to look at “how we do what we do better, in terms of our skill sets. And how do we continuously iterate and get better at solving the problems that we’re working on. It’s been awesome.” Says Zuckerberg, who’s got his hands full as CEO of Meta Platforms, which has faced a decline in ad revenues and laid off 11,000 employees late last year: “I spend a bunch of time on this, but it’s probably at the level of any of the major organizations that I’m overseeing. So, I might spend as much time on this as I spend on WhatsApp or Instagram.”
As exciting as all the scientific discovery is, one thing that Chan and Zuckerberg haven’t mentioned in their vision to cure or manage all disease are the complexities of delivering the treatments that will be discovered. The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the gaps in healthcare and the public health system in the U.S. and elsewhere. “People tend to think that the tough part is the basic science part. Unfortunately, there isn’t an appreciation of what needs to happen thereafter,” says Dr. Wafaa El-Sadr, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. “Whether it’s a technology or a test or a medicine, it’s understanding who wants it, how can they get it, how can they afford it, how can they trust it. There are so many different steps.”
Dr. Gary Désir, a physician-scientist and the chair of internal medicine at Yale School of Medicine, points out the limited role that medical treatments play in the outcome of major diseases like diabetes, hypertension and heart disease–typically just 20%, according to public health experts. “Exercise and eating well and not doing things that are detrimental to your health–those three things drive the major outcomes of chronic disease. The impact of medicine is actually quite limited,” says Désir. He also points out that different people respond differently to the same medical treatments based on their zip code. “It has to do with income, education, the environment where you live–whether it is polluted or not,” he explains. “You’d make a lot of progress [in reducing disease] by getting rid of poverty and feeding people.”
Jeff MacGregor, a spokesperson for CZI, explains that the mission of CZI’s science efforts is to support the science and technology that would make it possible to cure, prevent or manage all disease–but that it often gets shortened to just the last part. “We’re not necessarily experts in global health,” says MacGregor. “Our focus in the larger ecosystem is on basic science and technology.”