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When Scientists Get Celebrity Treatment

Billionaire Sean Parker is pouring money into science and treating scientists like celebrities.
@Kmeron, https://tinyurl.com/yy7ffdw6
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Billionaire Sean Parker is pouring money into science and treating scientists like celebrities.

You probably wouldn't be surprised to hear that a California billionaire had thrown an extravagant party for friends that included a custom ice sculpture that funneled high end whiskey into guest's glasses.

But what about if those guests were scientists and the party was to celebrate a Nobel Prize?

Billionaire Sean Parker is pouring money into scientific research and also giving scientists celebrity treatment. It’s not commonly done.

Parker was a co-founder of Napster and then Facebook’s first president for a short time. Forbes estimates his worth at $2.7 billion.

“He committed $250 million to fund cancer immunotherapy research back in 2016 and since then he's committed hundreds of millions of dollars of his own money in addition to that,” writer Rebecca Robbins told Living Lab Radio. “We wanted to find out, how serious is Sean Parker about this? And in what ways are his investments changing the way that research is being done in the field?”

Robbins is San Francisco correspondent for the health and medicine news site STAT and recently profiled Parker and his unorthodox investments in science.

There is evidence that Parker’s funding is actually advancing the research in cancer immunotherapy, Robbins said.

“Sean Parker's Institute has tried to focus on funding the most risky, high-reward, impactful research,” Robbins said. “And according to a number of scientists and outside experts in the field, they are making progress in that direction. They recently published their first data on a trial in patients with pancreatic cancer.”

The treatments won’t be hitting the market anytime soon, but in a field that is often blocked by obstacles, Parker's investments do seem to be making a difference, Robbins said.

What’s really different about Parker’s approach is that he is also treating the scientists like celebrities.

“Over the years, Sean Parker has exposed some of these scientists, who are much more at home in a lab than on a red carpet, to the good life,” Robbins said.

When Parker announced to his institute and his investment back in 2016, he threw a big party in his backyard in Los Angeles. It featured performances from John Legend, Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Lady Gaga.

“Scientists were, of course, in the mix…and many of the scientists I spoke with talked about the ways in which they have entered into Sean Parker's world and been exposed to this world of glamour.”

But it goes both ways, Robbins said. Sean Parker's friends, who are the Hollywood and Silicon Valley crowd, are being exposed to leading scientists.

“[They’re] being exposed to ideas about what's on the cutting edge of cancer immunotherapy,” Robbins said. “And I think that connection, that bridge between these two worlds, is an important one. When leading figures in Silicon Valley and Hollywood shape and influence what kind of ideas get attention.”

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Web content produced by Elsa Partan.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.