Sean Parker: Hacker philanthropist
Sean Parker emerges from his kitchen carrying a cup of lemon tea with honey, two bottles of pills and some free medical advice.
I should treat my cold, the billionaire Facebook investor tells me, not with a typical over-the-counter cold remedy but instead with individual medicines for each symptom. “In most cases you’re not going to need all of the things in the cocktail and some of them are going to make you feel a little wacky,” he says. “You’re better off buying the ingredients separately and customising.”
For my dry cough and runny nose, he prescribes ibuprofen and the allergy medicine Allegra, and there is a little something in the tea, too. “I may have put a tablespoon of bourbon in it,” he says with a smile.
I have come to Parker’s apartment, at one of New York’s most extravagant addresses, the old Plaza Hotel on the corner of Central Park, not because he has set up a doctor’s surgery but because he has strong views on how billionaires might help create the medical breakthroughs that presently elude us. As I sip my tea, he will dispense advice not only for me but also for the scientific establishment, for philanthropists and for the world of charitable foundations that he says suffers from “cruft and inefficiency”.
Parker is calling his approach “hacker philanthropy” and in his latest move he has pledged $250m to reshape the field of cancer immunology through the new Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy, which will pool the work of leading scientists at half a dozen major universities and hospitals, with the aim of dramatically speeding up the development of new drugs.
Seventeen years after he created the music file-sharing service Napster, and now aged 36, Parker is still a prolific backer of tech start-ups, from politics apps to movie streaming ventures and he is also on the board of the online music company Spotify — but he says that this work in cancer now effectively monopolises his time.
“The other companies I’m involved with probably wouldn’t want to hear that,” he says. “Luckily the consumer internet companies are not very mentally taxing at this point. This is both much more intellectually interesting and a lot more rewarding than building yet another product for teenage girls.”
Hacker philanthropy is meant to be the antidote to what Parker calls the conservative, incremental work of most charitable foundations; a timidity he says is borne of institutional self-preservation and a need to assuage philanthropists’ “deep-seated anxiety that their capital may not be accomplishing anything”.
Hackers, by contrast, are iconoclasts drawn to fix the holes in big, complex systems, and they are willing to make bold experiments and embrace failure as a learning experience. Since the world’s billionaires lists are increasingly populated by computer programmers who have built insanely large tech companies, it is only a matter of time until their hacker mentality is brought into the world of philanthropy.
“I don’t even see it as giving away money so much as trying to solve a set of social or political problems that are not easily addressable with for-profit companies and investments,” he says.
Parker first set out his philosophy in a deliciously rude essay published in the Wall Street Journal last year. In it, he claimed that Andrew Carnegie, the robber baron-turned-funder of the US public library system, would be appalled at what has become of the foundation that is dispensing his fortune.
“Perhaps if he had lived to see the internet, he would have funded Wikipedia instead,” he wrote. “We will never know, but the foundation that bears his name carried on funding libraries even after the internet made them obsolete.”
Cancer immunology is a case in point. The idea that the body’s own immune system could be “hacked” and used to fight tumours is now one of the hottest areas of research and new drug development. But it received very little funding until a decade ago, despite its roots in 19th-century scientific experiments, because it was deemed too uncertain for government grants, Parker says.
His own personal and family history of asthma and allergies has meant he has always been fascinated by the immune system. He has been ramping up his interest in, and donations to, cancer immunotherapy for the best part of a decade and it is a big focus for the Parker Foundation, which he seeded with $600m of his fortune last year. “It used to be the red-headed stepchild of the oncology world. There was a dedicated band of scientists who were convinced by the data that the immune system played an important role in cancer, but they were essentially refugees from the cancer establishment.
“If you do what most charitable organisations do, which is form a scientific advisory board composed of the luminaries in the field, who are all at that point the establishment, and then you let those people determine how your resources are going to be allocated, you’re going to end up doing essentially more of the same thing that everyone else is doing.
“There are a set of things where they’re either too far ahead or they’re unpopular for some reason or the establishment isn’t yet interested, where private philanthropists can step in and have a huge impact.”
But, I ask, if a philanthropist funds only areas of scientific research that are out of the mainstream, surely all he or she will end up getting is a lesson that most areas are out of the mainstream for good reason?
“Your point is a valid one,” he answers; “that you can’t expect every well-meaning philanthropist to educate themselves about the science and find the next frontier that’s worthy of their investment. That’s a very tall order. I do however think that more people should try.”
We are sitting in the dining room of the apartment under a giant portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, a piece of art that has been digitally created out of hundreds of photos of the royal family. It comes with the rental, as does the rest of the decor and furniture, and therefore does not signify any particular interest in British royalty, though Parker adds: “I do have a lot of people round who are hoping to get knighthoods.”
Earlier he had told me that Sting and Trudie Styler were due for dinner shortly after our interview finishes. At another point, he says he plans to host a get-together for Chris Martin of Coldplay when he returns to his Los Angeles home, and I start to worry that the man who did so much to upend the music industry with the invention of Napster might be settling into the lifestyle of an ageing rocker.
Parker’s Hipster International playlist on Spotify — once a must-follow for fans of new music and credited with launching the US career of New Zealand singer Lorde — has lain dormant for a couple of years and when I ask what he listens to these days, his first answer is The Smiths. I jokingly suggest that musical ossification is inevitable when you become a father, as he did for the first time in 2013, when his daughter, Winter, was born, and for a second time in 2014, when his son, Zephyr, arrived. “I was pretty active in music, in discovering new music and also promoting it to the world, up until maybe the age of 34. So that’s fairly atypical,” he says. “I stopped because I couldn’t find any music I liked any more. These last two years have seemed rather bleak for new artists. It’s not me. It’s them.”
Spotify continues to tussle with artists, new and old — or more accurately, with their managers — who want a larger slice of royalties when a user streams their songs, but Parker says they ought to be directing their fire elsewhere.
“There’s a lot of free music in the world right now and the problem with free music isn’t Spotify,” he says. “We monetise at a very high rate a very small number of users. YouTube has a gigantic number of users and doesn’t nearly monetise those users as well. So it’s frustrating and a little perverse when artists, managers and labels complain about too much free music and yet they continue to give it all away to YouTube.”
The same sorts of arguments about monetising content in the internet age are at play in one of Parker’s other ambitious ventures right now, Screening Room, an idea he is backing that would allow people to watch new films at home on the same day they come out in cinemas. The hope is to persuade cinema owners to support the idea by offering them a share of the revenues.
Meanwhile, he is also juggling another start-up, called Brigade, an anti-apathy app designed to promote civic engagement by asking users to debate political topics. Parker himself is no stranger to political debate, having supported causes including gun control and the legalisation of marijuana.
The intersection between politics and philanthropy seems a good place to end our conversation, since another tenet of hacker philanthropy is that donors probably need to change government policy if they want to create real systemic change. Mark Zuckerberg, probably the richest hacker philanthropist in the world, has signalled he will use part of his Facebook fortune to do just that. “If you’ve been very successful, you have a responsibility to try to use your resources and influence to improve other people’s lives and that responsibility can be interpreted much more broadly than just giving away money,” Parker says, as I gulp down the last of my bourbon-laced tea.
“The political channels for giving back, they’re met with greater scepticism. They don’t have the same blessing of the public or the media and they’re more controversial. In some ways they are probably a more pure form of giving back because you’re unlikely to get credit for it. If anything, you’re likely to be criticised for it. So one of my core tenets in trying to make an impact is that if I’m not being scrutinised at least a little bit, I’m probably not doing everything I possibly can.”