In the Oscar-winning film, The Social Network, Sean Parker (as played by Justin Timberlake), dished out some advice to Facebook founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin.
“A million dollars isn’t cool, you know what’s cool? A billion dollars.”
It’s a fittingly swashbuckling quote for a man who has never thought small, who has sought to smash through problems rather than patiently chip away at them.
Having co-founded the industry-changing Napster as a teenager, served as the inaugural president of Facebook and been an investor and board member of Spotify, Parker has been one of the most disruptive business leaders in the digital era.
Parker has accumulated a personal wealth currently estimated at US$2.6 billion. More recently, however, he has turned his attention to philanthropic ventures.
In typically ambitious Parker style, he is seeking to make impatience a virtue. His work aims to bring the mentality of a hacker and the energy of a start-up entrepreneur to philanthropy.
In typically ambitious Parker style, he is seeking to make impatience a virtue.
He has been involved in donating to cancer research as far back as 2005, but it was in 2015 that Parker made his biggest move into the philanthropic sector.
With his wife Alexandra, he established The Parker Foundation with a US$600 million gift, the largest ever single donation in the field.
The foundation was established with a charter to undertake experimental and cutting-edge research into cancer. It brought together more than 40 laboratories and over 300 scientists and involved six leading medical research institutions working together.
The foundation’s work has included research on producing T cells to fight cancer through new gene-editing technology known as CRISPR. In 2017, it undertook a trial testing CRISPR-modified cells in humans, the first time such a trial was run in the US.
Recently, the foundation has published research from its scientists which showed that patients with higher levels of microbial diversity responded better to an anti-PD-1 checkpoint inhibitor.
This work is being turned into a clinical trial for melanoma patients which the foundation will fund. The trial is expected to begin in 2018.
In a statement on the foundation’s website, the organisation says it has a specific methodology to directing its considerable funds. “We only target very big specific problems that are ‘tip-able’, where we see a path to victory and where we can make a catalytic impact,” it reads.
“We try to choose the right problems, move quickly and spend big to solve them.”
We try to choose the right problems, move quickly and spend big to solve them.
The foundation’s bold, interdisciplinary approach has already won acclaim. Last year, Parker received the public service award from the Society for the Immunotherapy of Cancer.
— Sean Parker (@sparker) April 13, 2016
Similarly, the University of California, Los Angeles gave Parker and Alexandra the Philanthropic Leadership Award, the highest honour in the field, for the foundation’s research.
Further, he was one of the founders of Facebook’s activism app Causes, but has more recently expressed his serious reservations about the impact of social media.
At one point in The Social Network, Parker’s onscreen persona told colleagues: “You don’t even know what the thing is yet, how big it can get, how far it can go.”
With Parker now applying the disruptive energy and visionary ambition he brought to the digital sphere to medical research, the same may be true of his philanthropic efforts.