Why and How Yuri Milner Founded the Breakthrough Foundation Projects

(Photo : Yuri Milner)

“The human adventure has barely begun.” – Yuri Milner

Yuri Milner has become one of the planet’s most successful entrepreneurs through early investments in leading internet technology and platforms. His net worth today is approximately $7.3 billion. Driven by his lifelong passion for science and his belief that the work of great scientists enriches us all, Yuri Milner has founded and invested millions into the Breakthrough Foundation, which oversees various projects that champion innovative research, reward established and emerging scientists, and further humanity’s search for intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Here, we’ll explore the Breakthrough Foundation’s three main projects: the Breakthrough Prize, the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, and the Breakthrough Initiatives. We’ll also take a look at Yuri Milner’s history of philanthropic work through the Giving Pledge and the origins of his passion for science, innovation, and projects that are literally out of this world.

Yuri Milner’s Early Inspiration

As a boy, Yuri Milner developed a fascination for intelligent life beyond Earth. Some of the 20th century’s greatest scientists, including the late Stephen Hawking (who Yuri Milner later partnered with to launch the Breakthrough Initiatives), inspired him to study physics at the postgraduate level.

After graduating, he switched to business, studying at the Wharton School in Philadelphia, and eventually founded a successful technology company, DST Global. Under his leadership, DST Global has grown into one of the world’s largest tech investment funds, with a portfolio that boasts leading internet platforms from Silicon Valley and beyond.

Yuri Milner and the Giving Pledge

For the tech investment entrepreneur, the field of science never lost its intrigue. Along with his wife Julia, in 2012, Yuri Milner joined Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet’s Giving Pledge, committing to donate at least half of their wealth during their lifetime to primarily scientific causes. At the time, Yuri Milner wrote that his intention behind joining the Giving Pledge was to invest in the greatest minds and humanity’s shared future.

That same year, in partnership with Sergey Brin, Ann Wojcicki, Priscilla Chan, and Mark Zuckerberg, the Milners launched the Breakthrough Prize, the world’s largest award for science and mathematics. Three years later, they went on to introduce the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a global science video competition for high school students.

The Breakthrough Prize

The Breakthrough Prize, known as the “Oscars of Science,” recognizes the work of leading figures in the fundamental sciences, the disciplines that ask the biggest questions about life, such as: Why is there something rather than nothing? How can matter think? What is the universe made of? The Breakthrough Prize has three categories that each offer a prize of $3 million: Fundamental Physics, Life Science, and Mathematics.

Additionally, the New Horizons Prizes award $100,000 to early-career research physicists and mathematicians, while the $50,000 Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize rewards female mathematicians who have recently completed their PhDs. So far, the Breakthrough Prize has awarded an astounding $292.25 million in prize money to the best and brightest in trailblazing research and innovation.

Each year, selection committees composed of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates in the three fields choose the winners. The Breakthrough Prize honors new laureates at an annual ceremony broadcast globally and, as part of the ceremony schedule, the winners engage in a public program of lectures and discussions.

The Breakthrough Junior Challenge

As an investor in the future of science and humanity, Yuri Milner has funded efforts that encourage the next generation of scientists to ask and answer big questions. In 2015, continuing their Giving Pledge commitment to support science and the communication of scientific ideas, Julia and Yuri Milner launched the Breakthrough Junior Challenge. This competition invites ambitious teenagers to tackle some of science’s biggest subjects. The reward? A chance of winning life-changing financial contributions toward the future of their education and their school.

To enter, students aged 13 to 18 must make an original video of up to 90 seconds that creatively explains a grand idea in physics, the life sciences, or mathematics. Graded by their peers, and then a panel of world-leading experts, the students’ videos must be engaging, illuminating, and imaginative, clearly explaining a complex topic. The winner secures a phenomenal $250,000 college scholarship, a new science lab for their school worth $100,000, and $50,000 for a teacher who inspired them.

The Breakthrough Initiatives

The same year that Yuri Milner launched the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, he also founded a new project with Stephen Hawking. This project, the Breakthrough Initiatives, provides a much-needed boost to the Search for Extraterrestrial Life (SETI) and brings together leading experts with the Earth’s citizens to generate new, exciting ideas.

The Breakthrough Initiatives are space science programs that focus on the search for intelligent extraterrestrial life and the future of humanity as a space-faring species. The Breakthrough Initiatives actively carry out scientific research and missions, hoping to discover some of the answers to life’s most profound conundrums: Are we alone in the universe? Are there habitable worlds in our galactic neighborhood? Could we make the great leap to the stars?

The Breakthrough Initiatives comprise the following three main programs.

1. Listen

As the most comprehensive program undertaken in search of technological civilizations in the universe to date, Listen is a $100 million radio astronomy search for evidence of civilizations beyond Earth. The initiative partners with some of the largest, most advanced telescopes in the world and includes a survey of the 1,000,000 closest stars to Earth, as well as scanning the center of the galaxy and the entire galactic plane. The program’s specialists use some of the world’s most powerful instruments, which are 50 times more sensitive than telescopes previously used in the search for intelligence.

Over the past few years, Listen has transformed the field of SETI, covering at least 5 times more of the radio spectrum than previous research projects, and 10 times more of the sky, 100 times faster. It has also detected important non-extraterrestrial astronomical phenomena such as a new fast radio burst (FRB).

2. Starshot

Starshot is an engineering program that aims to build a tiny space probe on a chip that, at a fifth of light speed, could travel to our nearest star system, Alpha Centauri. It would reach its target in just over two decades – compared to the 80,000 years that the fastest currently existing rocket would take – and beam home images of the newly discovered planet Proxima b and, potentially, other planets too. The program could also produce essential supplementary benefits to astronomy. These benefits could include solar system exploration and the detection of Earth-crossing asteroids.

3. Watch

Watch is a multi-million-dollar optical astronomy search for evidence of primitive cellular life on nearby exoplanets. This Earth- and space-based astronomical program searches for signs of oxygen and other possible signatures of primitive life, as well as attempting to identify and characterize Earth-sized rocky planets around Alpha Centauri and other stars that are within 20 light-years of Earth.

To hasten the discovery and characterization of nearby Earth-like planets, Breakthrough Watch partners with world-class scientists and engineers to advance Earth-based telescopes and develop new space-based instruments. In early 2021, Watch discovered a new planet candidate in the Alpha Centauri system.

The project acts as a bridge between the Listen and Starshot initiatives: If Watch discovers any habitable planets, these planets are targets for the Starshot probe. Meanwhile, if the plants do reveal inhabitants, they will be of prime interest to Listen.

A World of Difference to Humanity

By not only supporting the brightest scientific minds of today and encouraging those of the future but also investing directly in groundbreaking space science research, Yuri Milner’s Breakthrough projects are making a world of difference to humanity and its place in the universe.

About Yuri Milner

Yuri Milner is an Israeli entrepreneur with a passion for investing in internet technology and science philanthropy. He believes that by providing financial capital to fields that are rich in the potential for life-changing discoveries, the rate of return from the ensuing cultural capital and countless innovations is immeasurable.

In 1985, Yuri Milner graduated from university with an advanced degree in theoretical physics and went on to research quantum field theory, before traveling to the U.S. to study at Wharton School of Business. In 1999, after realizing that his future lay in the promising internet industry, he founded Mail.ru Group, which became one of Europe’s leading internet companies. In 2010, he established DST Global, which became one of the world’s foremost tech investors.

As part of his commitment to the continued advancement of fundamental science and mathematics, Yuri Milner has established the Breakthrough Prize to support leading researchers and honor recent achievements. He has also introduced the Breakthrough Junior Challenge to encourage the next generation of bright minds to engage with some of science’s most challenging concepts. And he has founded the Breakthrough Initiatives to launch several cutting-edge space science programs so that humanity can investigate, and perhaps one day answer, some of the most fundamental questions of life in the universe.


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