Dr. Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg are planning to give away their Meta fortune.
They’ve pledged $6.4 billion to science, and say they will give away 99% of their Meta stock, with the goal of “curing, preventing, and managing” all diseases by the end of the century. Dr. Chan said her experience as a pediatrician partially inspired the decision.
In a virtual interview at Fortune’s Impact Initiative conference—her first since giving birth to her third child—Dr. Chan shared how the billions are being spent. She also gave insight into why she and Zuckerberg are following in the footsteps of The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Watch the video interview with Fortune’s Ellie Austin, or read the transcript below.
Ellie Austin: Since the inception of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in 2015, Priscilla Chan and her husband, Mark Zuckerberg, have committed more than $6.4 billion to scientific research. They’ve also pledged to devote 99% of their Meta stock over the course of their lives to philanthropy. And a major part of this money is focused on one specific goal that they’ve set for that organization: Curing, preventing or managing all disease by the end of the century. Here to share more about the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, please welcome Dr. Priscilla Chan, who’s joining us virtually. Cofounder and Cochief Executive of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. Hello, Dr. Chan, and thank you so much for joining us. And I just want to say that this is your first interview back from maternity leave following the birth of your third daughter. So, first of all, congratulations. And secondly, a particular thanks for taking the time to speak to us today. So, in my introduction, I referenced that very lofty goal that you and Mark set when you started the initiative in 2015. Eight years and the small matter of a global pandemic later, how realistic does that original goal seem?
Dr. Priscilla Chan: Thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.
This is, in fact, day three of coming back full-time. So, I’m thrilled to be jumping back into talking about the work. Yeah, so it’s been eight years since we started the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. And at that time, Mark and I decided we wanted to dedicate our experiences, our expertise, and our resources to addressing some of society’s biggest challenges. And science, we set the audacious goal to cure or prevent or manage all disease by the end of the century. Our work shows up in three ways. We build valuable open-source tools for scientists to be able to do their work better. We fund great biomedical research across the globe. And for projects that need more concentrated efforts, more collaborative efforts, we do science in our bio hubs. First in San Francisco and soon in Chicago.
Ellie Austin: And it might seem like a strange question. But what’s the ultimate goal for eradicating disease? Is it that we all live to 150? Is it that our life expectancy stays the same, but the quality of our life is better? I guess what I’m asking is, how would eradicating the threat posed by disease change humanity?
Dr. Priscilla Chan: It’s really important to be able to keep people healthy and keep people well in order for us to be our best productive selves. And we’re in a place in science where we can look at mutations, but, and we can look at the end state of what happens in disease. But the middle is largely a complete mystery. And we can’t actually really understand how to diagnose, treat or prevent. All of those would be fantastic outcomes because we don’t understand what happens in the middle. So, our work is really focused on making sure that we do our part in advancing our understanding from a scientific perspective of how the body works. And for us, our, you know, 10-year goal is to really focus on the cell. Cells are hard to study for a few reasons. One, there’s trillions of them. And they’re all different types. They’re really, really small, and they are dynamic. And so, our goal,to understand what cells are doing in healthy and disease states so that we can help patients and families understand what’s happening in their body and how to actually address it. But, you know.
Ellie Austin: No. No, please continue Dr. Chan.
Dr. Priscilla Chan: And I was gonna say there’s no one end utopia. It’s really about making sure that we’re accelerating our knowledge so that we’re empowering scientists, doctors and patients.
Ellie Austin: Health is only one part of what you do at the CZI. There’s also education and there’s community work, which looks at economic inclusion and affordable housing. When you have the funds, the ambition, the social network that you and Mark do, how do you decide which of the world’s many problems you want to solve? And which issues and areas maybe aren’t right for you?
Dr. Priscilla Chan: I want to start by saying the same thing I say at every new hire orientation, which is we’re big philanthropy. We’re so lucky to be able to be involved and participate in power. Work in the fields. But we are teeny, tiny. You know, you’ve mentioned that we’ve funded billions of dollars of science, but the NIH in the United States funds, like, $300+ billions of science every single year. So, we have to be really careful and strategic about where we think we can bring differentiated value. And so, we look beyond dollars. We look to expertise that we have or approximate to, we look at our ability to make a different bet that can complement the work that’s already happening. And so, we at CZI, we call it, like, does it fit into a CZI shaped problem? Or can we be a unique contributor in this space, based on the resources and the capabilities we have within our four walls?
Ellie Austin: And you talked about your new hires there. Now, in 2019, you and Mark donated almost $7 million to increase the diversity of college STEM students. And I wonder now, when you’re hiring at CZI, or when you’re thinking about universities you might partner with for the bio hubs, how diverse are the pools of people wanting to work for or with you?
Dr. Priscilla Chan: We’ve been so lucky to have an incredible community around us in the work that we do. And, as you mentioned, young people are a huge part of that. But it’s actually core to the work and the science that we want to do, too. Right now, our goal is to cure preventive managed disease, and that’s for everyone. In biomedical research, the majority of our knowledge, our data that comes out of labs, is based on adults of European ancestry. That doesn’t fit me, doesn’t fit many people in the room, and obviously leaves out a huge subset of people in the world. And so, our goal is to make sure that our work, both the people doing the work, and our work actually moves the needle forward for everyone.
And so we funded the historically Black medical colleges, one of which is right near you guys in Atlanta right now, to actually both diversify the people doing great science within their institutions as well as building a genetics and genetics counseling program to demystify a lot of what it means to participate in research. And to bring many more into the fold so that we have individuals of all different backgrounds coming in and participating in the work and being represented in science. And, you know, racial diversity is just one form of diversity. Another that’s very near and dear to my heart as a pediatrician is making sure that we don’t forget kids. Right now, a lot of research doesn’t represent kids and doesn’t tell us about their development and what should be happening as they grow up. What happens when they get sick because they have a different subset of issues that they face. And so, we’ve been really intentional about seeding research that includes… Brings in children so that we have information across the spectrum of race and age as we move forward in this really exciting era of science.
Ellie Austin: That’s really interesting. And just one extra note on the health equity question. Public health experts estimate that treatment often only accounts for about 20% of a patient’s outcome when they’re suffering from a chronic health condition. Lifestyle education are also key factors. How do you make sure, Dr. Chan, that any majo breakthroughs you make at the initiative will be accessible to anyone? Regardless of where they live or how much money they earn.
Dr. Priscilla Chan: So our research is in the work that we do and the tools that we build.
We keep it as an open-source tool so that people can really access it. Scientists can access it wherever. Another really important part in health equity is actually, you mentioned that treatment is just a tiny portion of it. All right, we have a portfolio called Science In Society where we support Rare Disease Research. And what we find is that the diagnostic journey is a place of large inequities. Patients that don’t have access to established medical centers may live far away. Or aren’t well plugged into the medical systems, spend a lot of their time and on the just going bouncing from one place to the other without getting an answer. And we’ve been working very closely with rare disease groups to make sure that we learn from their experiences to understand how our science, that the scientists that we’re supporting, can be applied quickly and equitably to individuals so that they can receive the diagnosis. One of the first and most clarifying steps in their health journey to get the treatment that they need.
Ellie Austin: I have one more question. And then I’m hoping that we have time for a question from the room. So, Bill Gates once said in an interview that he doesn’t want a legacy. How would you like to be remembered, Dr. Chan, as an individual? And how do you hope you and your husband are remembered as a couple?
Dr. Priscilla Chan: Well, first of all, I want this work to be successful. This work is so much bigger than myself or Mark. And, you know, we’re building these incredible datasets and tools. But it’s both very exciting and a little nerve-wracking because we’re at the beginning of this journey. We want to be able to see this work applied. We wanted to just see this work translate to affect patients’ lives. And every single time that we get to see an example of that, whether it’s seeing cystic fibrosis in a new way, or seeing a rare, incurable disease, have a new cutting-edge treatment. That’s what gives me life in this work. And so, I think first and foremost, I want to make sure that I’m doing everything I can to both build up the science and ensure that the basic science has a very, very strong connection to the lives of individuals.
Ellie Austin: Is there a question from anyone in the room for Dr. Chan?
Audience member: Dr. Chan, I admire CZI. I’m in the mental health industry. So my question to you is when you mentioned about very dear to you is for children’s health. And so, I wonder if CZI has done anything or is going to do anything for the mental health for children?
Dr. Priscilla Chan: You know, one thing that we do at CZI is make sure…is really think about how we’re supporting the whole child in the classroom. And it’s not just about, you know, working in math and getting the math results. It’s really thinking about how the child needs to be supported, and their sense of belonging, and their sense of well-being everyday in the classroom so that they can thrive. And so, that’s the place where we do the most work in your sector.
Ellie Austin: Dr. Chan, thank you so much for joining us today. Good luck with the rest of your return to work and we’re thrilled that you were here.