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 of my 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 a way to look at a lot of targets.
How did 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 that we should be doing things differently.
How is 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 to my 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.
Who do 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’m not 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-D a meniscus to replace the one taken out of my 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.
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