Funding the Impractical: Yuri Milner Gives Away $27M to Reward Physicists

By Sarah Lacy , written on July 31, 2012

From The News Desk

Well, this is a different side of Yuri Milner... The famed Russian tech investor and founder of Russian Web giant, has launched a new cash prize called the Fundamental Physics Prize. The aim is doing nothing more than advancing our knowledge of the universe.

To kickstart things, Milner has given away $27 million and will annually award another $3 million to fundamental physicists doing great work. And just let them keep doing that work. There's no expectations to be met, no commercialization that has to come out of it. Milner simply thinks it's important that we understand the universe better than we do now. "My background is in theoretical physics, and it's something very close to my heart," he said in an interview from Moscow this morning. "We, as a mankind, are not rewarding the best fundamental scientists the way we should, and this is one way to do that."

On one hand, this development seems surprisingly impractical for a man who up to now has been like a heat seeking missile, finding highly practical -- if unconventional -- new ways to upend the tech investing world. Milner has pulled off something that almost no one else has as long as I've been covering Silicon Valley: He came in from the outside, saw a gaping hole in a venture market that everyone thought was over saturated with cash, and was so right that he forced many of the most powerful Valley insiders to radically change their game plan.

Put simply, there was a clear liquidity gap in the market, as companies like Facebook didn't want to go public. He solved it.

Sure, VCs pooh-poohed his approach at first as merely overpaying without board representation. But entrepreneurs loved it -- witness Zynga's Mark Pincus calling Milner the ideal investor at last month's PandoMonthly. As Web giants put off going public longer and Milner's spoils became even bigger, many of the biggest investors pulled an about face and outright stole his playbook.

Years later, he saw another opportunity: To partner with uber Valley angel Ron Conway to guarantee all Y Combinator grads $150,000 in funding at ridiculously good terms. Y Combinator has already vetted and mentored the teams, why not invest in all of them? Even one Dropbox would make up for most of the others who went nowhere. Guaranteeing companies a favorable term sheet sight unseen seemed crazy, but again, Milner was merely ahead of the curve. Y Combinator demo days since have become deal-making feeding frenzies, with many firms effectively wanting to back anything that comes out of the top incubator. They just don't have a formal agreement.

And lately, he's been spending a lot of time investing in the most audacious potential Chinese tech giants like 360buy and Xiaomi. His value add -- in addition to plenty of cash-- seems to be the ability to tirelessly circle the world continuously looking for holes and gaps in the investing world to exploit.

But not everything Milner does has such a clear ROI. The beauty of this prize is how impractical it is, he says. He may not even see the results of this money in his lifetime. But nonetheless, he has a strong belief that it's important.

"Fundamental physics is like an art more or less," Milner says. "It's completely non-practical, and you can't use it for anything. But it's about the universe and how the world came into being. It's very remote from your daily life and mine, and yet it defines us as human beings. This reward is meant to send a message that fundamental science, and fundamental physics in particular, is an important occupation in spite of not triggering any practical results right away." He also hopes it inspires more young people to go into science.

Interestingly, he's taking the same hands-off approach that has made him so popular with tech entrepreneurs like Pincus. He gives them the money and invites them to give talks to the broader public and make their findings more widely known. But mostly he just wants to give them more freedom to pursue future breakthroughs.

The guidelines are simple: It should recognize major achievements in fundamental physics, has no age restrictions, can be awarded to the same person more than once, and can be awarded to teams as well. Anyone can nominate a candidate online. There's even flexibility for special prizes to be given at any time, based on uncommon achievements. Indeed Milner is not even selecting future recipients. This year's recipients will make up the committee to select future grantees. Each year, another person will be added to that committee, as another person wins the prize.

The recipients of the first awards are Nima Arkani-Hamed, Alan Guth, Alexei Kitaev, Maxim Kontsevich, Andrei Linde, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg, Ashoke Sen, and Edward Witten. Most are working in the US now, although they represent a mix of backgrounds, from Iran to Israel to India.

Philanthropy isn't rare in the Valley. Indeed, it's enjoyed renewed sex appeal of late with ambitious plans of Andreessen Horowitz to give half of the general partners' income to charity and individuals like Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz who has boldly pledged to give all of his money away in his lifetime.

But Milner's focus on research and science is different. It's reminiscent of Peter Thiel's Thiel Foundation gifts for audaciously grand, save-the-world, reverse-aging, solve-global-warming proposals made by would be entrepreneurs in their teens, some of whom we have profiled here. But while Thiel is taking far more risk than most sane investors would, hoping for fundamental breakthroughs that will change the way we live, the stated goal is still to create something tangible and commercializable.

Milner just wants the handful of great thinkers in the world, who are trying to figure out where we all came from, to keep thinking.