'After coronavirus, scientists and doctors will be our new heroes'

Russian-Israeli billionaire and philanthropist Yuri Milner has donated $3 million to Magen David Adom, Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and Tel Aviv University.

Russian-Israeli hi-tech billionaire and philanthropist Yuri Milner  (photo credit: STEVE JENNINGS/GETTY IMAGES FOR BREAKTHROUGH PRIZE/AFP)
Russian-Israeli hi-tech billionaire and philanthropist Yuri Milner
For Russian-Israeli hi-tech billionaire and philanthropist Yuri Milner, the current novel coronavirus pandemic serves as a clear – and far too rare – reminder of how much the world owes scientists.
As doctors battle to save lives and researchers scramble to discover a vaccine for the coronavirus, humanity has pinned its future ambitions on modern medicine and scientific ingenuity.
“In quiet times, people tend to forget how important science is and how much we owe scientists. In times of crisis, it becomes obvious,” Milner, founder of DST Global and an early investor in Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and AirBnB, told The Jerusalem Post.
“The 2001 terrorist acts in the United States brought us new types of heroes – firefighters and policemen,” he said. “I think this crisis will shed light on medical professionals in hospitals and intensive-care units, as well as scientists who are spending day and night in the labs right now, trying to find a cure. These will hopefully be our new heroes.”
On Tuesday, the Milner Foundation, founded by Milner together with his wife, Julia, announced a $3 million donation, allocated equally to three Israeli institutions racing to combat the coronavirus pandemic: Magen David Adom, Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center and Tel Aviv University.
MDA, a national emergency service, will use the funds to launch an innovative telemedicine treatment project, enabling intensive-care paramedics to assess patients at home and patients unable to enter clinics for routine tests and treatment.
The groundwork for the project was laid in 2018. But it has become increasingly vital during the coronavirus outbreak. The donation will fund up to 100 telemedicine units, costing approximately $10,000 each and covering all communities in Israel.
The donation to Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, commonly known as Ichilov Hospital, will support the center’s intensive-care units, including the purchase of additional ventilators and other equipment.
Milner, estimated to be worth $3.8 billion by Forbes, has a long-standing relationship with the hospital, which cared for his terminally ill father.
“We need to support medical professionals in any way we can right now, as they will be the people on the front line,” he said. “Even simple things like who will take care of their kids, for example, as everyone is on lockdown. These are the things we all need to think about.”
Tel Aviv University will use the donation to promote vaccination and drug research and development for the treatment of coronavirus patients. The funds will assist five university research groups developing gene-sequencing and -editing technologies, computer analysis and other methods to block the penetration of the coronavirus into cells or to strengthen the body’s immune system.
Researchers will use samples taken from coronavirus patients in hospitals affiliated with the university and collaborate with the Health Ministry, leading Israeli universities and research institutions.
“Science will help us to find vaccines and treatments for the virus, while technology will enable all of us to stay connected and continue our activities,” said Milner, who was named as one of the world’s 100 “greatest living business minds” by Forbes in 2017 and one of the world’s “greatest leaders” by Fortune magazine in 2018.
“If you judge celebrities by social-media followings, there will probably not be a scientist in the first 200 to 300 names,” he said. “The last living celebrity was Stephen Hawking. But we really need more heroes and celebrities who represent science that young children can be inspired by.”
Seeking to put a spotlight on scientific excellence, Milner co-founded the Breakthrough Prize – among the most prestigious awards in breakthrough scientific research – together with leading tech pioneers, including Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Ma. Since 2012, the nonprofit organization has awarded more than $200m. to some 2,000 scientists for breakthroughs in fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics.
“I hope the Breakthrough Prize ceremony we are planning to have in the Fall will really be dedicated to heroes fighting coronavirus,” he said. “I’m sure there will be films made and books written when the dust settles. I hope the recognition of the importance of these people will stay with us in the long term.”
Milner now resides in Silicon Valley, California, but advancing Israeli scientific causes has added significance for him and his family.
He became an Israeli citizen in the 1990s and is one of the donors of the Israel Defence Forces (FIDF) and the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. The latest donation was finalized following close cooperation between Milner and Israeli Consul General to the Pacific Northwest Shlomi Kofman.  
To celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary in 2018, Milner launched the “70 for 70 Fellowships” program – a NIS 25m. ($7m.) fellowship fund to support 70 outstanding PhD candidates at Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Each fellow will receive $25,000 annually for four years.
“I feel very much affiliated to Israel and what is happening there, although I didn’t have a chance to live in Israel for a long time,” Milner said. “But I always feel connected and thinking about what can I do to support some of those initiatives that are close to our hearts – usually related to science.”