In the internet age wherein we live, a breed of entrepreneur has risen in an entirely new way. The intelligent technicians, masters of coding and computer geeks of the highest calibre have grown, with unprecedented speed, to the pinnacle of the start-up, business mountain, gaining billions of dollars along the way. The likes of Steve Jobs, Bill gates and Mark Zuckerberg, all computing geniuses, have crafted multi-billion dollar businesses through their apparent self-proclaimed geekiness. And now, rolling with the times, scientists are gaining unparalleled attention in the business realms too, marking a new-wave of geekified entrepreneurs. This begs one question, and one question alone, are scientists the new business playboys?
Coming at a time when the world’s traditional unilateral view of business is blurring, we are all wondering what on earth is next, and the answer may well lie in the fields of science. Now in its fourth year, the Breakthrough Prize has developed into a mass-media, business-orientated institution of unprecedented pedigree. The awards, founded by the commanders of entrepreneurial showmanship – Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan, Yuri Milner, Julia Milner, Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang – are fortified into three categories; Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics and Mathematics. And here comes the outstanding part – all winners receive a phenomenal $3 million, not to mention a star-studded, televised awards ceremony with some of the biggest names in business, popular culture and politics in attendance. So much attention for the scientific world, why is this so? Is the world really changing its mind on the pigeonholed minority of science? Apparently so.
This years’ event, which took place last Sunday, signified a turning point in the celebrity status of scientists. Hosted by Seth Macfarlane, the creator of Family Guy and the host of the 2013 Oscars, with guest presenters Russell Crowe, Hilary Swank and Lily Collins, a performance by 10-time Grammy Award winner Pharell Williams and a live-stream to astronaut Scott Kelly aboard the International Space Station, there was nothing pc, geeky or unimaginative about this landmark event. What we are seeing is the lavish surge of interest in the sciences, propagating the rock-star-esque personas of little-known scientists, watching them directionally shift into burgeoning new business superstars.
It’s all rather lovely, isn’t it. “By challenging conventional thinking and expanding knowledge over the long term, scientists can solve the biggest problems of our time,” says Mark Zuckerberg, “The Breakthrough Prize honours achievements in science and math so we can encourage more pioneering research and celebrate scientists as the heroes they truly are.” This year saw five prizes in Life Sciences presented to Edward Boyden and Karl Deisseroth for developing a system named optogenetics – a way of turning neurons on and off using light, John Hardy for research into Alzheimers, Helen Hobbs for finding gene variants linked to cholesterol and Svante Pääbo for research into evolutionary anthropology. They each received $3 million. The prize for Fundamental physics, awarded to 5 teams for their experiments into the investigation of neutrino oscillation, received an equal share of $3 million. And in the Mathematics category, Ian Agol was gifted $3 million for breakthroughs in low dimensional topology and geometric group theory. Unsurprisingly, little of this makes sense to us mere laymen, yet we congratulate and cheer the commendation, and thank them for literally changing the world. As the Russian billionaire and co-founder Yuri Milner said,“Breakthrough Prize laureates are making fundamental discoveries about the universe, life and the mind. These fields of investigation are advancing at an exponential pace, yet the biggest questions remain to be answered.”
If some of the largest names in business are actively advancing the image of scientists into the pubic eye, contributing millions of dollars to developing their image, their work and their genius, perhaps this really does mark a new age of business playboys, business playboys that may actually, finally change the world for the better, and I for one champion this wholeheartedly.