Tech titans create $3 million 'Breakthrough Prize' for scientists

Thursday, February 21, 2013 - 10:24am

(CNN) -- Eleven health researchers received $3 million each Wednesday from a new foundation set up by some of the tech world's heaviest hittters. That's twice as much money as a Nobel Prize pays.

And, according to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the once-in-a-lifetime payout isn't even the most important part.

"This prize isn't really about the people who are winning it today," Zuckerberg told CNN's Ali Velshi shortly after the Breakthrough Prize Foundation handed out its first of what are planned to be annual awards. "It's the college and graduate students who are in the lab trying to figure out what they should be researching. It's about younger kids trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up."

Zuckerberg has teamed up with tech heavyweights like Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Apple board Chairman Art Levinson to launch the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

On Wednesday, an inaugural class received the prizes for their work in research "aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life."

"Society has a lot of heroes for a lot of different things, but we don't have enough heroes who are scientists and researchers and engineers," Zuckerberg told CNN. "We're just trying to set up this ... to reward and recognize the amazing stuff these folks are doing."

Levinson, the former CEO of biotechnology company Genentech, will serve as chairman of the foundation's board.

"I believe this new prize will shine a light on the extraordinary achievements of the outstanding minds in the field of life sciences, enhance medical innovation, and ultimately become a platform for recognizing future discoveries," he said in a written statement.

The founding sponsors -- Brin and wife Anne Wojcicki, Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan, and Russian entrepreneur and venture capitalist Yuri Milner -- have committed to funding five $3 million prizes every year going forward.

Each prize winner will join the selection committee for future recipients.

Wojciciki, founder of health-and-ancestry genetics company 23andMe, said that while the Nobel often recognizes scientists whose work has been widely applauded, she hopes the Breakthrough Prize will herald those whose less-visible work leads to similarly grand results.

"We want to get people in the life sciences to think big, take risks and recognize there's a major reward that could come their way," she told Velshi.

The prize's first 11 recipients are: Cornelia I. Bargmann, David Botstein, Lewis C. Cantley, Hans Clevers, Napoleone Ferrara, Titia de Lange, Eric S. Lander, Charles L. Sawyers, Bert Vogelstein, Robert A. Weinberg and Shinya Yamanaka.

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