Investor Peter Thiel recently held a gathering of the well off and motivated, encouraging them to invest more daringly in philanthropic projects. To take bigger risks and aim to change the world, rather than succumb to the curse of incrementalism - which is a road to accomplishing little of worth when all is said and done. What use is great wealth without the imagination and will to reach for the sky and shake the foundations?
So that said, I'm pleased to note that the SENS Foundation received a $500,000 donation as a result of Thiel's event - or more likely the result of the invisible toil of networking and discussion behind the scenes, and which has been building up to this for some time. Regardless of the mechanisms behind this sizable donation, it is very welcome development indeed. Congratulations are due to all concerned, and I hope that this will be one of many such large donations across the next decade of fundraising and research:
The global scientific community is increasingly recognizing the role of rejuvenation biotechnologies in addressing age-related disease. This week, Arizona-based businessman Jason Hope announced a $500,000 donation to SENS Foundation, a California-based non-profit organization that works to develop, promote and ensure widespread access to rejuvenation biotechnologies which comprehensively address age-related disease.
"I have had great interest in the SENS Foundation and Dr. Aubrey de Grey's work for some time now. I believe their work is essential to the advancement of human medicine and their approach to the overall problem of human aging and its associated diseases (Alzheimer's, Atherosclerosis, Diabetes, etc.) is the only way to go. Their work and the work of others that they support will drive the complete redefinition and reshaping of the healthcare, pharmaceutical, and biotech industries as we know them today. The advancement of rejuvenation biotechnologies is not only extremely important, but it is the future. I am honored to support the SENS Foundation in its efforts, and hope my support helps drive faster results for all of humanity," said Jason Hope.
Here's a selection of other coverage of the event:
[This] is planned to be a fairly straight forward event. After an hour or so of networking there will be a few opening remarks from The Thiel Foundation, and Patri Friedman of the Seasteading Institute. After that, we'll be on to five minute “lightning talks” from organizations at the cutting-edge of technology. That list includes the SENS Foundation, Singularity University, Singularity Institute, Foresight Institute, Humanity+ (with Ben Goertzel), Santa Fe Institute, and Xprize Foundation (with Peter Diamandis). Each of these groups is looking to push the boundaries of science, politics, and/or society, and could provide disruptive (and hopefully positive) changes in the years ahead. After their talks, Thiel will give a few closing remarks and attendees will continue to mingle and connect until the event closes.
Talking to various people at the event, it surprised me how many attendees were already affiliated with at least one of the presenting groups. Even when someone hadn't previously donated to any of the organizations, they already knew something about their policies and interests. In other words, I'm not sure how much the lightning talks were really giving new information to their audience. Of course, educating people in the finer points of each institution likely wasn't the point. It was probably more about cross pollinating between the organizations. Apparently, that's how a lot of these fund raisers go. It will be interesting to see how successful the evening proves to be, and to find out whether or not The Thiel Foundation's matching offer entices people to donate.
Last night Silicon Valley icon Peter Thiel, of PayPal fame, gathered eight of his favorite future-oriented organizations and a couple hundred of his wealthiest friends in an auditorium at San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts and made a magnanimous offer. For every dollar attendees contribute to the organizations before New Year’s Day, Thiel's foundation announced, the billionaire investor-philanthropist will contribute another dollar, up to a limit of $1,000 per organization per attendee. If everyone who attended Thiel’s so-called "Breakthrough Philanthropy" event gives a full $8,000, Thiel could be on the hook for a lot of money. My own rough estimate is that 200 people were on hand - and 200 times $8,000 comes to $1.6 million
Peter Thiel did a good job of setting up the framing for these investments in brief final comments. He acknowledged that many of these ideas struck many in the philanthropy field as weird. But, he drew a distinction between incremental change and breakthrough change (he used the words "extensive" and "intensive"). Extensive change is going from something that works at one scale and bringing it up to a larger scale. He pointed out that it's much harder to go from zero to one, than it is to go from one to many. He's looking for those breakthrough opportunities that will have a major impact. But, that means you have to bet on a lot of unusual, "weird" ideas, to see one or two that have that kind of revolutionary impact. There aren't many philanthropists that explicitly endorse a strategy where the majority of their grants are likely to not be successful. But, if you have a heightened appetite for risk, the frame changes. What if only one of these groups gets revolutionary change going that changes society on a big scale? Probably a pretty good return on investment.
That last comment is a good description of investing in startups, the work of venture capital. A few big home runs and a lot of failures - and the world changes as a result of the successes. The field of institutional philanthropy would benefit from more of that way of looking at things and a good deal less of the sort of stolid, unimaginative endowments that lead to dead names carved on new buildings.