Chan Zuckerberg Initiative makes first ever acquisition

24 Jan 2017

Image: alessandro guerriero/Shutterstock

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, aiming to “cure, prevent or manage all diseases” by the end of this century, has bought its first company: Meta.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is acquiring Meta, an AI-led research search engine, with the start-up’s tool soon to be released free to all, with consistent enhancements set to follow.

This is the first major move from the organisation set up by Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg since it revealed a $3bn plan to drive scientific advances to a point where modern diseases can be cured, prevented or managed.

Cori Bargmann and Brian Pinkerton, president of science and CTO respectively at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, revealed the news in a Facebook post, highlighting the need for greater collaboration at the core of scientific discovery.

Meta developed an AI that helps scientists, read, understand and prioritise millions of scientific papers, according to the duo, with around 4,000 new publications filed daily.

This is necessary due to the difficulty scientists and researchers have in finding relevant studies. Meta, the duo hope, can fill this gap.

“The potential for this kind of platform is virtually limitless,” said Bargmann and Pinkerton, citing examples such as a researcher using Meta to help identify emerging techniques for understanding coronary artery disease, or even a grad student noting that two different diseases activate the same immune defence pathway.

“In the long run, it could be extended to other areas of knowledge; for example, it could help educators stay up to date on developmental science to better understand how children learn.”

Last September, the organisation pledged $3bn worth of investment over the next decade, putting very little on the back-burner as multimillion-dollar projects started up in double-quick time.

The first project was the creation of Biohub, into which the initiative is investing $600m. It will bring together scientists and engineers from Stanford, Berkeley and University of California, San Francisco, ultimately working with its own engineering staff.

Bargmann is leading the push to defeat four kinds of diseases in particular – cancer, heart disease, infectious diseases and neurological diseases.

“The science initiative is a long-term effort,” said Zuckerberg at the time. “We plan to invest billions of dollars over decades. But it will take years for these tools to be developed, and longer to put them into full use. This is hard and we need to be patient, but it’s important.

“This is about the future we want for our daughter and children everywhere. If there’s a chance that we can help cure all diseases in our children’s lifetime, then we will do our part. Together, we have a real shot at leaving the world a better place for our children than we found it.”

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic