Sean Parker gives startup energy (and $600 mil­lion) to phi­lan­thropy.

Sean Parker, of Nap­ster and Face­book fame, is ded­i­cat­ing his mind and his mil­lions

The Washington Post Sunday - - BUSINESS - BY ARIANA EUNJUNG CHA ariana.cha@wash­ More at wash­ing­ton­

Sean Parker helped cre­ate Nap­ster at age 19 and be­came pres­i­dent of Face­book at 24. Now 35, mar­ried and a fa­ther of two who posts In­sta­gram videos of his fam­ily, the bil­lion­aire en­tre­pre­neur is tak­ing on the phil­an­thropic world.

On Wed­nes­day, Parker— who is es­ti­mated to be worth $2.8 bil­lion— an­nounced he would be cre­at­ing a foun­da­tion, the epony­mous Sean N. Parker Foun­da­tion, with an ini­tial $600 mil­lion in­vest­ment. It will have three main fo­cus ar­eas: civic en­gage­ment, global public health and life sciences.

The work will build on gifts he has made over the past three years in can­cer im­munother­apy, al­ler­gies and malaria. Sev­eral years ago, Parker drew at­ten­tion to a nascent field of can­cer re­search that aims to har­ness the body’s im­mune sys­tem to fight can­cer cells with a $5 mil­lion do­na­tion to Stand Up to Can­cer and $1 mil­lion to the Can­cer Re­search In­sti­tute. Now can­cer im­munother­apy is con­sid­ered one of the most promis­ing ap­proaches to fight­ing the dis­ease. In 2014, Parker made head­lines again for a $24 mil­lion do­na­tion to Stan­ford Univer­sity for a cen­ter that would work on a cure for al­ler­gies. It’s per­sonal: Parker has se­vere al­ler­gies to peanuts, tree nuts and shell­fish that have made him a fre­quent visi­tor to emer­gency rooms.

His most re­cent grant, of $4.5 mil­lion to the Malaria Elim­i­na­tion Ini­tia­tive at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at San Fran­cisco, looks at the dis­ease from a dif­fer­ent van­tage point than the Gates Foun­da­tion. While the Gates Foun­da­tion has fo­cused on treat­ments for those in­fected and on items such as bed nets to cre­ate a bar­rier that pre­vents the mosquitoes from bit­ing their vic­tims, Parker’s goal is to at­tack the source by dis­rupt­ing the life cy­cle of the mosquitoes them­selves.

Still ac­tive in busi­ness in re­cent years as a board mem­ber of Spo­tify, Parker says he’ll be shift­ing to an al­most full-time role at his foun­da­tion.

“I’m giv­ing away $600 mil­lion just in this first tranche, which is a huge per­cent­age ofmy net. And I’m giv­ing it away very quickly. I have to be will­ing to be very in­volved,” he said. How quickly? “I don’t have a spe­cific time pe­riod in mind,” he said, “but it’ll prob­a­bly hap­pen much faster than I think any­body would ex­pect.”

This in­ter­view, part of a se­ries of con­ver­sa­tions with Sil­i­con Val­ley fig­ures who are shak­ing up phi­lan­thropy, has been edited for length and clar­ity.

You spent al­most a decade mak­ing smaller, ex­per­i­men­tal phil­an­thropic in­vest­ments and try­ing to fig­ure out what kind of foun­da­tion you wanted to start. Tell us about what you learned.

I be­came fairly rapidly dis­il­lu­sioned with how the phil­an­thropic world worked. Com­ing from the tech­nol­ogy world, the phil­an­thropic world felt in­cred­i­bly slow and not par­tic­u­larly hon­est about what worked and didn’t work.

This wasn’t an iso­lated el­e­ment of the way phi­lan­thropists thought. It was sort of the pri­mary mind-set. They are typ­i­cally peo­ple en­gaged much later in life, and they are giv­ing away large amounts of cap­i­tal, and they want it to work. So the cur­rency be­comes recog­ni­tion and re­spect and sta­tus, which are fairly in­tan­gi­ble. And es­pe­cially when you are talk­ing about these kinds of megadonors who are giv­ing away hun­dreds of mil­lions or bil­lions they are fairly dis­en­gaged.

The core prin­ci­ple I’ve taken is that the only prob­lems I’m in­ter­ested in solv­ing are the ones for which I have some novel in­sight, some level of ex­per­tise or some­thing I can add. As a ven­ture in­vestor I don’t need to an­swer ever de­tail of ev­ery prob­lem, but I have to choose the right idea to solve. That’s what I’ve ap­plied to char­i­ta­ble giv­ing.

So where do those ideas come from?

It mostly comes from think­ing. I would say gen­er­ally over a pe­riod of decades the vast ma­jor­ity of them, 90 per­cent or more, re­ally, re­ally don’t make any sense or aren’t vi­able, so I throw them away. I try to spend time fo­cus­ing on the ones that seem like they are go­ing to work.

Why do you be­lieve can­cer im­munother­apy is so im­por­tant?

If you look at dif­fer­ent health is­sues, the num­ber that have their roots in au­toim­mune dis­or­ders is enor­mous: arthri­tis, de­men­tia, Alzheimer’s, di­a­betes Type 1. Are these po­ten­tially re­versible with the cor­rect treat­ment? There are a whole se­ries of things that have a sim­i­lar ba­sis in im­munol­ogy. If you’re look­ing for near-term wins, im­munol­ogy is away to look at a lot of tar­gets.

How­did your re­cent grant to­ward com­bat­ing malaria come about?

That was a re­sult of eight years of work try­ing to con­vince peo­ple, at the Global Fund [to Fight AIDS, Tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and Malaria] and at the Gates Foun­da­tion, that other ap­proaches should be tried. Some of it was just col­lect­ing ev­i­dence, and then the ar­gu­ment got stronger and stronger. I end up pur­su­ing the things where I have a pretty strong con­vic­tion thatwe should be do­ing things dif­fer­ently.

Howis the al­lergy work at Stan­ford go­ing? Are you go­ing to en­roll your­self in one of the clin­i­cal tri­als soon?

I’m go­ing there on Mon­day to get up­dated on our newer clin­i­cal tri­als, and I’m very en­thu­si­as­tic about the progress. Our goal re­mains: How do we get this treat­ment down to one or two treat­ments that achieve per­ma­nent re­sults? I’m prob­a­bly a lit­tle too overea­ger to start my­self on all the ex­per­i­men­tal stuff that hasn’t even cleared in an­i­mals, but I guess I have to pick the right one, be­cause if I pick the wrong one, it may look like a high-pro­file fail­ure. [Laughs.]

Some other tech phi­lan­thropists are look­ing at “moon­shot” projects with re­ally far-out goals such as ex­tend­ing life or cre­at­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence. Are you in­ter­ested in any of this?

Com­pared tomy close friend Peter Thiel, the projects I’m do­ing are rel­a­tively near-term and rel­a­tively bor­ing. I’m specif­i­cally look­ing for ar­eas where we can make an enor­mous grant and de­clare vic­tory in some rea­son­able amount of time or ad­mit fail­ure and rec­og­nize that the in­vest­ment and con­tri­bu­tion we made didn’t live up to its ex­pec­ta­tions.

Whodo you bounce ideas off of? Do you have any men­tors in the phil­an­thropic world?

Peo­ple I’ve ar­gued with. I think most of the things I’ve done so far were largely con­sid­ered re­ally un­pop­u­lar or re­ally fringe when I started do­ing them.

What about your wife [Alexan­dra Le­nas]? What kind of ad­vice has she given you?

She’s very in­volved; we talk about all the grants. She ac­tu­ally very much shares your in­ter­est in syn­thetic bi­ol­ogy and grow­ing re­place­ment or­gans.

Should we take that as a sign that this is some­thing you’d con­sider pur­su­ing down the road?

I’mnot un­in­ter­ested. It’s just a ques­tion of where can we gen­er­ate re­sults? What are ideas that are ready for prime time? I’d love to get a point where we can 3-Da menis­cus to re­place the one taken out ofmy leg six years ago. We’re not quite there, so the idea of 3-D-print­ing a heart is pretty far out if you can’t 3-D-print a piece of dead car­ti­lage.

Sounds as if you’ve spent a lot of time in hos­pi­tals.

That’s the an­swer to where do I learn this stuff. I get checked in to hos­pi­tals a lot and ask the doc­tors a lot of ques­tions.


Sean Parker, a tech bil­lion­aire, has started an epony­mous foun­da­tion with a $600 mil­lion in­vest­ment.

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