LOS ANGELES — Sean Parker is in a partying mood. He has invited 700 of his closest friends to his $55 million home on this starlit evening to celebrate the launch of his latest project, which he describes as the most important thing he has done in his 36 years.
It’s bigger than Napster, which upended the music industry, he says. More life-changing than Facebook — which now has more than 1 billion users.
On the grounds of the billionaire’s mansion, which glows with several thousand white candles and is decorated with elaborate arrangements of succulents, it is as if the world has been turned upside down. Tom Hanks, Keira Knightly, Katie Couric and Bradley Cooper are milling about. California Gov. Jerry Brown makes a cameo appearance. Lady Gaga and Katy Perry are here, too.
But the guests of honor, the people everyone is lining up to take selfies with, are cancer researchers sporting bow ties.
Tonight, Hanks says, is about “the science geeks and nerds and doctors, the people who live their lives under hideous fluorescent lighting.”
Parker has personally recruited many of the scores of researchers in the crowd at the black-tie affair to join him in a wildly ambitious $250 million philanthropic effort to rid the world of the devastating disease. His plan involves bringing together a critical mass of scientists in the red-hot area of immunotherapy and pointing them in the direction of the most promising targets in the hope that, together, they can move research along faster than by working alone.
It is hard to overstate the promise of the field. If successful, it would allow doctors to tinker with the body’s immune system so that it could fight off cancer on its own — without the barbarity of surgery, without the toxicity of chemotherapy and radiation.
“Immunotherapies, when they work, are often curative. There are survivors 10, 15 years out from early trials who are cancer-free,” Parker says. “The work has a level of importance that consumer Internet doesn’t really have.”
It’s also much harder. Life sciences, as some other tech philanthropists are discovering, are infinitely more complex than computer systems. After sinking more than $300 million into funding for research on aging, Larry Ellison recently abandoned the cause after what associates said was disappointment about the lack of breakthroughs. The internal politics of the scientific world are also sometimes tricky for the former entrepreneurs to navigate. The Gates Foundation, which has made huge strides toward its goal of wiping malaria from the face of the earth, has faced criticism for promoting “group think” for the way it has helped guide researchers to certain targets with its funding.
Parker said that despite his success in business — and that’s putting it mildly when you consider his net worth of $3 billion — there has been something “unsatisfying” about building the next big online product for teenagers. He wanted to do something more meaningful with his time and money.
The statement is Parker’s acknowledgment that none of us — no matter how wealthy, beautiful or talented — is invincible to the ravages of disease. It isn’t hyperbolic to say that many people — and certainly Parker — think that the scientists on his lawn may be among the best hopes the world has to one day find a cure.
The Sean Parker the world knows was immortalized by Justin Timberlake in the 2010 movie “The Social Network” as a gifted playboy with questionable morals. A 2013 photo spread in Vanity Fair of his lavish Tolkien-themed wedding to singer-songwriter Alexandra Lenas among Big Sur’s redwoods earned him the ire of environmentalists.
But in real life, during two separate interviews for this story, Parker comes across as humble, sensitive, deeper and more complicated than you might expect from the caricatures of Silicon Valley’s bad-boy genius. The notoriously flaky executive who reportedly always runs late is not only on time but early. He talks charmingly, a mile a minute, about everything from “neoepitope targets” and “monoclonal drug conjugate-based delivery” — to how he once managed to hit himself in the head with Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar. (It was at an after-party for the movie — which, for the record, Parker hates for getting him wrong. “I bumped in to him and I should have been cold but for whatever reason I said, ‘Can I hold your Oscar?’ As he’s handing it to me he kind of smacks me in the head and my initial reaction is, ‘Oh my God, did I hurt it?’ ”)
You can see the influence of family on Parker — he now has a 3-year-old daughter and a 1-year-old son. He very seriously describes his model for scientific innovation as creating a “sandbox” for the researchers.
“Everyone in our network can play in it,” he said. “They are able to borrow things from each other’s labs and use discoveries without compromising or encumbering their intellectual property.”
Since leaving Facebook, Parker has had his hands in more than a dozen ventures in widely varying fields — all designed to improve on the world as he sees it. They include companies such as Spotify, Airtime, Plaxo and his latest project, Screening Room, which would let subscribers show first-run movies in their living rooms for $50 a pop. Then there’s Brigade, the social-media platform designed to give millennials a voice in politics. The Economic Innovation Group, a D.C.-based think tank, is focused on driving private investment and entrepreneurs to struggling parts of the country. And then there’s his $1 million donation to try to get marijuana legalized in California.
In the beginning, Parker’s interest in cancer was similar to his passion for other areas and had to do with solving an intellectual puzzle that eluded him.
Ever since he was a child growing up in and around Herndon, Va., Parker has suffered from life-threatening allergies to peanuts, tree nuts and shellfish. He jokes that his wife keeps count of emergency room visits (14 from when the couple met until the birth of their second child in 2014).
His condition led him to learn as much as he could about the body’s immune system and how it goes awry. About seven years ago, he stumbled onto some papers about how that could theoretically be applied to cancer. Since then, Parker — who famously went on to co-found Napster at age 19 and became Facebook’s first president at age 24, never having gone to college — has spent countless hours on PubMed, Wikipedia and other sites teaching himself the lingo of science and trying to figure out where the gaps are.
“Most people spend their time on the Internet watching cat videos,” he said. “And I pass the time late at night when my wife is wondering what the heck I’m doing – she probably thinks I’m watching porn – I’m actually reading medical journals.”
But as Parker got deeper into the world of cancer and connected with more people, it started to become personal.
He said it was Laura Ziskin, a Hollywood film producer and breast cancer activist, who inspired him to think big with this philanthropy in the space. When Ziskin’s cancer came back in an aggressive way several years after they met, and traditional treatments had failed her, it was Parker who reached out to physician Cassian Yee to try an experimental immunotherapy drug. According to an account in MIT Technology Review, Parker told him, “We’ll give you whatever you need, we’ll put you on an island to do it.”
But that treatment didn’t work, either. When Ziskin died at age 61 in June 2011, Parker was shaken.
“A lot of us who knew her thought she was invincible. She had the smarts, the money, the resources and the fight,” he recalled. “We thought for sure she’d beat it.”
Word of Parker’s growing interest, expertise and connections in cancer started to spread among California’s elite, and others sought his help. Jeffrey Huber, an executive with Google X (the company’s secretive, stretch-for-the stars experimental lab) reached out on behalf of his wife, Laura, who had been healthy, with no symptoms, when doctors diagnosed her with stage 4 colon cancer.
Huber said he was moved by how Parker dedicated himself to his wife’s case. “He took a very personal interest,” Huber said. “We moved heaven and Earth to help her, but it was a futile battle.”
After his wife’s death, Huber left Google to become chief executive of a cancer-focused company called Grail. One of the first things he did after starting his new job in February was to sign on to Parker’s new effort.
Many of the institute’s other partners — 300 scientists at six institutions, 30 companies and a half-dozen advocacy groups — are also connected to Parker in some personal way through cancer.
Parker is well aware of the painful inequality that exists in immunotherapy, with most patients finding experimental drugs impossible to obtain — and some of them prohibitively expensive. One main priority, he said, is to change that and make sure that any person who wants the treatments can try them. As of now, he says, only 200,000 of the 13.5 million Americans who have a history of cancer have ever tried the therapies.
About two weeks before the big April 13 unveiling of the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, Parker was in San Francisco checking on some final preparations. As he bounded up the steps of the University of California medical sciences building dressed in a forest-green Henley shirt, dark jeans and beat-up suede boots, he was indistinguishable from the sea of doctors and researchers rushing back and forth on the street below.
Jeff Bluestone, the former university provost and immunologist who was tapped by Parker to head the institute, met him at the entrance and without so much as a hello exclaimed: “We got ’em!” Parker broke into a broad grin and threw him a high-five.
The men were talking about Stanford. The medical center’s attorneys had just approved a deal making it the sixth partner in the consortium — joining MD Anderson, Memorial Sloan Kettering, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California at San Francisco and the University of California at Los Angeles. It was a major coup.
In the year that Parker and Bluestone plotted to set up the institute, they have grown close, and Bluestone alternately talks about Parker as a scientific peer and as a father might of a son he is particularly proud of. They finish each other’s sentences. Bluestone said that it is not unusual for him to get calls late at night from Parker with a question.
He describes being at Parker’s home office with other scientists one day while they were trying to pick out a name for the institute. He said he was struck by how Parker’s thousands of books were organized by field: physics, art history, evolution and so forth.
“We were looking through the glossaries to try to find some interesting names,” Bluestone recalled. “A name like entropy would come up. Sean’d be like, ‘Well, do you know what it means, a, b, c and d?’ Someone else would say, ‘What about this medieval art thing?’ And Sean would say, ‘Well, this person cut off someone else’s head. You don’t want to name the institute after that.’ ”
“He’s a scholar in ways most people are not scholars,” Bluestone said.
On the agenda for the day’s visit, in addition to touring the construction on the wing of the building that would become the command center for the institute, was a meeting with a patient — a 57-year-old fifth-grade public school teacher named Brian Landers, from the nearby town of Alameda.
The team was working on designing a clinical trial to try to figure out why some people respond well to immunotherapy while others do not — a question critical to bringing treatment to the masses. Landers, as he himself put it, is “the data.”
Landers was in bad shape — with metastatic melanoma that had spread to his colon, right lung and connective tissue in his body — when doctors treated him with immunotherapy drugs. Within half a year, the tumors all but disappeared, making him among the lucky “super responders” to the therapy.
As the three scientists in the room peppered Brian with questions, Parker didn’t miss a beat and was geeking out with the rest of them.
“To me, there’s nothing more exciting than what’s happening in life sciences. We’re at an inflection point where the technology has advanced to a point where we have the ability to be transformational,” he said, putting his hand on his chin as he does when he’s thinking hard.
“Look at T cells,” he added, talking about the body’s disease-fighting armies. “Blood-cancer patients are getting T cells designed with some natural and some unnatural components mixed into one living cell that’s grown outside your body and put back in. Like that’s science fiction almost. It’s pretty crazy!”
As part of Parker’s mission, he says he wants to disrupt the way the world sees scientists. He said he has always wondered why celebrities are so, well, celebrated, while scientists toil in relative obscurity. He said he wants to make sure the scientists at his institute are in the best possible shape, mentally and physically, so they can do what they do best: think. Silicon Valley companies offer free lunches and Skittles to their employees. Why shouldn’t his scientists also enjoy some perks?
The fabulous party, during which numerous celebrities referred to their “rock-star scientist” guests and thanked them profusely for their dedication to their work, is just one example.
Parker has also treated the growing group of scientists affiliated with his institute to twice-yearly retreats that he says he wants to be enjoyable for them rather than a burden, like most academic conferences. The last gathering was earlier this month in California, over two days in Napa, and featured hot-air balloon rides, spa treatments, wine tasting and golf in between scientific meetings. The one before that was in Hawaii, where the scientists snorkeled and ate grilled fish. It was Parker’s idea that family members not only be welcome but encouraged to attend the festivities. He brings along his own wife and kids to bond with those of the scientists.
The juxtaposition of the humble scientist’s life and Parker’s world isn’t lost on the researchers. Lewis Lanier, who runs the Parker Institute site at the University of California at San Francisco, said the feting is “certainly very different” from even a year ago when he was spending his time trying to eke out enough money for his research from one National Institutes of Health grant to another. Carl June, the renowned University of Pennsylvania professor who brought immunotherapy to the public’s attention after effectively curing a 6-year-old girl’s advanced leukemia, is also somewhat baffled by the collision of Hollywood, Silicon Valley and his work.
“I don’t do the whole social media thing,” June said. “I knew about what he did with Napster and Facebook, but not much more. He has a different background from the circles I travel in.”
June said he is still not used to all the attention, but game to embrace any approach that will move the science along faster. And after all, he said, he has read that Parker throws a mean party.