Tech Philanthropists Are Giving Away Billions to Build a Better Future

They’re often featured as James Bond villains — super-rich megalomaniacs who pour their infinite resources into sophisticated doomsday devices, private rockets for last-minute escapes, and enough high-tech toys to rival the NSA, FBI and CIA combined.

It’s easy to vilify the mega-rich, but billionaires and multi-millionaires (on occasion) do some good for society. One class, in particular, could be viewed as a type of Bond anti-villain.

About half of the top 50 philanthropist dollars in the United States in 2014 were given by tech entrepreneurs, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Overall, the technology sector gave away $5 billion that year, though their charitable contributions dropped precipitously last year to $1.3 billion (possibly skewed due to the absence of “mega-gifts,” such as a $2 billion donation by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2014).

“There is a very real surge of philanthropy from tech sector leaders,” says David Callahan, founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, a news website that tracks nonprofits. “Many of these folks believe in giving early in life while still in their careers, as opposed to a more traditional model of waiting until later in life.”

“Mark Zuckerberg, along with other tech leaders like Sean Parker and Dustin Moskovitz, have been key role models for the new approach, as well as cheerleaders for other emerging donors,” he adds. “There’s a shift toward the norm of giving big, and soon, among the younger elite.”

Their philanthropy is not just about battling social ills such as AIDS and poverty. Much of that money is making its way into technological innovation and scientific research for society—and not just to outfit their own private robot army.

The new generation of philanthropists is also bringing a different ethos to how the rich give away their money, according to an analysis earlier this year by the Boston Consulting Group. The old paradigm involved setting up large endowments to provide grants, in theory, until the end of time, giving rise to what BCG calls a “professional class” of people to administer the process.

Not so with tech philanthropists.

BCG writes: “[They] challenge that approach with an inherently proactive venture capital mindset. Rather than wait for proposals to come to them, they actively seek places to put their money. They also prioritize speed and rapid impact. Determined to see results in their own lifetimes, they’re willing to make big, often risky bets. Some even treat their philanthropic investments like venture capital endeavors, applying creative equity models to ensure a return and demanding measurable results to justify further giving.”

Says Callahan, “Tech philanthropy reflects the industry from which these donors come. You get rich in tech by thinking up ideas nobody’s had before or disrupting existing industries. Many tech philanthropists bring this same mindset to social change. There’s not a lot of interest in more traditional giving aimed at stewardship.”

Here are some fascinating projects and initiatives being funded by philanthropic dollars from the world’s high-tech elite:

Creating the fountain of youth

Last year, the Washington Post produced a huge cover story about a group comprised of the who’s who of tech, including current and former CEOs and founders of companies Google, Facebook, eBay, Napster and Netscape, who are combining their monetary might to fight aging.

“I believe that evolution is a true account of nature, but I think we should try to escape it or transcend it in our society,” says PayPal cofounder and venture capitalist Peter Thiel in the article. Former Oracle CEO Larry Ellison alone is donating more than $430 million to anti-aging research, according to the Post.

The portfolio of projects includes “hunting for the secrets of living organisms with insanely long lives, engineering microscopic nanobots that can fix your body from the inside out, figuring out how to reprogram the DNA you were born with, and exploring ways to digitize your brain based on the theory that your mind could live long after your body expires.”

Getting a start

Thiel also channels his money into Breakout Lab, which supports early-stage companies in areas ranging from food science and biomedicine to clean energy, providing grants of up to $350,000. Channel Labs says it provides a “new funding and support mechanism for radical science companies.”

A few examples from the Breakout Lab portfolio: AVEtec in Ontario, Canada, is developing the Atmospheric Vortex Engine to harness the energy of the tornado process to continuously drive turbines with no carbon emissions and no need for energy storage. A Palo Alto company called G-Tech Medical is working on a wireless, wearable, disposable patch, an “EKG for the gut,” which will help diagnose the root causes of gastrointestinal disorders. And Opus 12, also based in California, is developing a device that recycles CO2 into chemical products using only water and electricity, with the potential to offset 1.5 billion tons of CO2 emissions annually.

Thinking outside the box

No discussion about tech philanthropy can leave out Elon Musk, whose suite of companies, including Tesla Motors and SpaceX, revolve around do-gooder intentions with hard-edged drive.

The Musk Foundation, formed in 2002, provides grants in the areas of renewable energy, science and engineering education, and pediatric health (and that’s about the sum total of information available on the website). For instance, his foundation has donated solar power systems in areas hit by disaster through SolarCity, a company he originally helped conceive and finance (and is currently seeking to acquire).

In December 2015, Musk added artificial intelligence to his list of causes when he co-founded OpenAI, a $1 billion research center with a mission to build safe AI. Musk has also donated $10 million to the Future of Life Institute, for similar purposes, according to Inside Philanthropy. In late 2015, Musk suggested he might back development of a neural lace to insert AI into the human brain, the website reported.

Funding the future

Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, through his foundation, provides funds for scientific research, the environment and health. Past projects include money for telescopes, including one at the South Pole in Antarctica, and an ocean expedition to study marine microbes.

This month he announced the creation of the Moore Inventor Fellows, a program for early-career innovators at US universities. Each fellow will receive a total of $825,000 over three years, including $50,000 per year from their home institution. The foundation will invest nearly $34 million during the next ten years to support 50 Moore Inventor Fellows.

Among the five first fellows is Xingjie Ni from Pennsylvania State University whose work on “a brighter quantum light source could ultimately increase the speed, scale, and security of information transmission in quantum communication and computing.” One possible application is an ‘invisibility cloak,’ providing optical camouflage, which has real-world applications across aviation and healthcare.

“Many of the tech donors have moved aggressively to push forward the boundaries of scientific research,” Callahan notes. “Techies believe in funding science and innovation for obvious reasons, given how they’ve made their money.”

It turns out that some of those with the deepest pockets are making the biggest investments in not just their own portfolios but the future of humanity.

Image credit: Shutterstock

Peter Rejcek
Peter Rejcek
Formerly the world’s only full-time journalist covering research in Antarctica, Peter became a freelance writer and digital nomad in 2015. Peter’s focus for the last decade has been on science journalism, but his interests and expertise include travel, outdoors, cycling, and Epicureanism (food and beer). Follow him at @poliepete.
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