Silicon Valley’s New Obsession

A group of tech founders, crypto billionaires, and star scientists is launching a fleet of science labs.

An illustration of an atom with dimes, nickels, and pennies as electrons, and a quarter as a nucleus
The Atlantic

About the author: Derek Thompson is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Work in Progress newsletter.

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In April 2020, when the coronavirus first swept across the United States, many of America’s top scientists struggled to get funding to answer basic and urgent questions about the disease it caused. Patrick Collison, the chief executive of the payment-processing company Stripe, spied an opportunity in this market failure. He co-founded a program called Fast Grants, which raised more than $50 million that was quickly distributed to hundreds of projects. In its first 20 months, the program supported research on saliva-based tests and clinical trials for drugs, such as fluvoxamine, that could be repurposed to treat COVID-19.

The success of Fast Grants raised an uncomfortable question about how the U.S. funds innovation. If a little pop-up could unlock so many good ideas so quickly, how many potential breakthroughs are being denied every year by the traditional system of funding science?

Since the end of World War II, America’s science spending has relied on centralized agencies such as the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. The NIH and NSF have helped researchers map the human genome and accelerated the technology behind the COVID vaccines. But these bureaucracies move slowly and require arduous busywork. Today, researchers spend 10 to 40 percent of their time putting together complex grant proposals. This time suck pulls scientists away from doing real science while it nudges them toward projects that will appeal to peer-review boards rather than lead to novel breakthroughs. More generally, innovation is in a rut. Economists have concluded that progress is slowing down in the life sciences and that growth of scientific knowledge has been in decline for decades.

Now founders and investors—including tech CEOs, crypto billionaires, bloggers, economists, celebrities, and scientists—are coming together to address stasis with experimentation. They’re building a fleet of new scientific labs to speed progress in understanding complex disease, extending healthy lifespans, and uncovering nature’s secrets in long-ignored organisms. In the process, they’re making research funding one of the hottest spaces in Silicon Valley.

People have good reasons to be skeptical of any narrative that casts Silicon Valley as a white knight rescuing a troubled industry. Some of these efforts will likely fail. But I’m genuinely excited by the three science start-ups whose founders I spoke with, not only because science needs a shake-up but also because Silicon Valley needs one. After decades of building extraordinary wealth by solving often-trivial problems with digital code, tech luminaries are trying to uncover meaningful lessons about how science works.

1. Arc Institute

Problem: U.S. science funding attaches too many strings to our best researchers, preventing them from working on the most interesting problems.

Solution: Arc gives scientists no-strings-attached, multiyear funding so that they don’t have to apply for external grants.

When Fast Grants surveyed its recipients, more than 70 percent of grantees said they would change their focus “a lot” if they could deploy their grant money however they liked. This made Patrick Collison feel certain that science needs more institutes that fund people rather than projects.

In December, Collison teamed up with Silvana Konermann, a biochemistry professor at Stanford University, and Patrick Hsu, a bioengineering professor at UC Berkeley, to launch the Arc Institute. Funded with more than half a billion dollars from investors including Collison and the Ethereum billionaire Vitalik Buterin, Arc will give up to 15 core investigators eight years of no-strings-attached funding, plus a team of research assistants, to study complex diseases in any way they want to. Arc also plans to develop new life-science technologies, such as gene-editing tools, for other scientists.

Arc’s founders told me that their ambition is to build a 21st-century Bell Labs for biology. “I see Arc not as a buzzy new Silicon Valley concept but rather a return to that which has worked before,” Collison said. The NIH mostly funds specific research proposals, whereas the great industrial labs of the 20th century, such as Bell and Xerox PARC, funded researchers in a more open-ended way.

Arc’s co-founders told me they have sympathy for the NIH’s low tolerance for risk, because voters might not support their tax dollars going to some cockamamie ideas. But that’s precisely why privately funded institutions ought to reward broader curiosities, Konermann, Arc’s executive director, told me. “In the Fast Grants surveys, grantees told us that government funding was restraining work on their best ideas,” she said. “We’re funding people in an unconstrained way on the work they’re most excited about.”

Shortly after we spoke, Collison sent me an article co-authored by the scientist James Shannon, the director of the NIH in the ’50s and ’60s. “The research-project approach can be pernicious,” Shannon wrote in 1956, “if it is administered so that it produces certain specific end products, or if it provides short periods of support without assuring continuity, or if it applies overt or indirect pressure on the investigator to shift his interests to narrowly defined work set by the source of money, or if it imposes financial and scientific accounting in unreasonable detail.” Collison’s point was crystal clear: The 21st-century U.S. science-funding system has re-created the problems that its 20th-century leaders warned us about. Experiments like Arc might help us recapture a forgotten spirit of unconstrained curiosity.

2. Arcadia Science

Problem: Modern science is too siloed—both because researchers are too narrowly focused and because peer-reviewed journals stymie collaboration.

Solution: Expand the menu of species that we deeply research—and embrace an open-science policy.

I once wrote that American science is held back by a trust paradox (we “trust science,” but our government doesn’t trust scientists to pursue their favorite projects) and a specialization paradox (we force scientific specialists to specialize in grant writing). Maybe I should add the biology paradox: In their research, biologists ignore the majority of living organisms. More than 90 percent of federal science funding is used to study a small number of species, including mice and yeast.

“It’s crazy to me that we are such a rich nation and yet we ignore trillions of species, knowing how much we can learn when we turn over a new rock,” Seemay Chou, a former assistant professor of biochemistry at UCSF, told me. She brought up the example of CRISPR, the promising gene-editing technology, which was first discovered by molecular biologists studying the unusual features of bacteria. “We looked at a slightly different bacteria and discovered this extraordinary potential technology for humanity,” Chou said.

Last September, she and Prachee Avasthi co-founded Arcadia, a $500 million biotech firm backed by former Y Combinator President Sam Altman and the blockchain billionaire Jed McCaleb. Like Arc, Arcadia will back researchers’ most open-ended, curiosity-driven work, but with a special focus on understudied species. Ticks, for example, have learned to manipulate our skin physiology by dulling our sensory perception when they bite, making their saliva a potential goldmine for skin-related research and therapeutics. Arcadia is looking for these sorts of treasures in biology’s overlooked corners.

Arcadia plans to publish all of its research online, without peer review or a paywall, as part of a movement known as “open science.” “We have a rule that nobody at Arcadia can publish in a journal,” Chou told me. “We believe that open science is better science. Research is meant to be openly discussed for the benefit of readers and the public, and most peer review offers a false sense of security.

3. New Science

Problem: Science is getting old, fast.

Solution: New Science sponsors young scientists.

Imagine a parallel universe in which Steve Jobs wasn’t allowed to start a company until he spent about 20 years getting a bachelor’s degree, earning a certificate in business formation, working at HP to prove his talent, and then finally earning the right to apply for grants from a federal agency that was disinclined to fund an idea as weird as the personal computer. In this parallel reality, Apple might never have been born.

This career path, ludicrous in business, is familiar to a modern academic: Get a bachelor’s degree, get a Ph.D., complete a postdoc or two, hope to join a university as an assistant professor, and then apply for funding from government agencies that might be biased against your best ideas anyway. Such a laborious process may arguably be necessary for filling young academics with the appropriate knowledge to practice or research in their field, but it also unquestionably holds young people back.

Modern science is not a young man’s game. The average age of first-time NIH grantees is 42 (and rising), and scientists younger than 35 receive less than 5 percent of federal funding. But research into “age-genius curves” has found that scientists and musicians might be most productive before they turn 40.

If the problem is obvious, the solution might be straightforward too: We need more funding for young, visionary scientists. That’s the plan at New Science, a research nonprofit led by Alexey Guzey. The institution has raised millions of dollars from donors including Buterin and Jaan Tallinn, a co-founder of Skype, which it plans to distribute to young scientists. How young? “If a really talented undergraduate applies to us with an ingenious idea, we might fund them,” Guzey told me. “That could include paying for a full-time research technician, having a scientific co-founder join them, or leveraging their talents in some other way that would not be possible in academia.”

I don’t want to suggest that Silicon Valley might single-handedly fix America’s science problem. (The low-hanging objections—Oh, like Silicon Valley fixed our democracy problem?—are too many to count.) But nobody I spoke with for this story thinks of Silicon Valley as American science’s lonely savior. “I don’t want this to be Silicon Valley versus the scientific establishment,” Avasthi said. “I think we could all benefit from more experiments in scientific funding, and I want these experiments to reach far beyond the Bay Area.”

I am confident, however, that these experiments will reveal something important about the nature of science. For all the wonders of scientific discovery, we weirdly don’t know much for sure about how scientific discovery works; how to organize complex teams to solve wicked problems in biology; or how to get the most bang for our buck in funding these efforts. We need a better science of science, which means that, overall, we need more information. A Cambrian explosion of start-up science experiments will, if nothing else, give us plenty of data.

The monolithic U.S. science system has lost the glow of the original scientific revolution. Five hundred years ago, writers like Francis Bacon and scientists like Isaac Newton hailed the virtue of experimentation for its own sake. They championed an openness to unusual ideas, borne from a profound dissatisfaction with the status quo. Today’s science start-ups seem to march under a similar banner. Or, less grandly, they’re trying out a bunch of things. In this way, you could say Silicon Valley is not disrupting U.S. science so much as it is taking science back to its origins.