In 2015, Sean Parker announced a $600 million personal contribution to launch the Parker Foundation. The organization focuses on three areas: Life Sciences, Global Public Health and Civic Engagement.
Soon thereafter, Parker donated $250 million by way of a grant from the Parker Foundation to create the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy in 2016. People refer to it as PICI, (pronounced “pie-see”). The simple vision behind this concentrated effort is to yoke the immune system to fight cancer. The funds initially went to over 300 scientists at 40 laboratories, in 6 institutions.
What Parker is aiming for is to break down the “siloization” of cancer research infrastructure by removing barriers, amplifying collaborations (ie. horizontal data sharing among research partners) and generally embuing the development of immune therapies with a sense of urgency.
Perhaps these gifts of possibility and imagination are a result of Parker’s own regrets about the negative network effects Facebook is having on society. In 2017, Parker expressed his call to action, and his desire for biological justice, when he stated in an interview, “God only knows what it’s [Facebook] doing to our children’s brains.”
Negative network effects applies to the U.S.’s pay-to-play political industry where the government promotes or approves of something through a policy, subsidy or financial guarantee due to private sector influence. Benefits accrue only to the purchaser of the network effects, and consumers, induced by the false signal of large network size, ultimately suffer from asymmetric risk and experience a loss of intangible net worth for each additional member after the “bandwagon” wares off. If this were the case, then you would see companies experience rapid revenue growth (out of line with traditional asset leverage models), executives accumulating huge fortunes and political campaign coffers swelling. But the most striking feature would be the anti-social outcomes, the ones not available without the instant critical mass of government-supported network effects, the ones that, at scale, monetize a society’s intangible net worth, like health.
Network effects can be earned or purchased, weak or strong, offensive or defensive, but they are always powerful. It’s why they are pursued with such vigor. Take the case of Facebook, a company considered to be a textbook case of massive value created with network effects. Yet there are persistent questions about Facebook’s impact on society.
One data point to consider concerns leaked documents that describe how the social network shared psychological insights on young people with advertisers. According to reports dating back to 2016, Facebook told Australian advertisers it can identify teens feeling “insecure” and “worthless” stemming from such things as body confidence and weight loss. In the marketing world, this segment is called vulnerable narcissists – and these are among the most emotionally vulnerable in society including, “high schoolers, college students and young working Australians and New Zealanders.” Facebook is described as having the capacity to monitor posts and photos in real time to determine when young people feel “stressed”, “defeated”, “overwhelmed”, “anxious”, “nervous”, “stupid”, “silly”, “useless” and a “failure.” Exploiting emotional vulnerability for profit can certainly be considered a sociopathic targeting of intangible well-being. Consider this: A New, More Rigorous Study Confirms: The More You Use Facebook, the Worse You Feel
One example of PICI’s promising investments is ArsenalBio. The company made its debut in October 2019 backed by $85 million Series A financing to build a programmable cell therapy company to create effective and accessible immune cell therapies. The company will integrate technologies such as CRISPR-based genome engineering, scaled and high throughput target identification, synthetic biology, and machine learning to advance a new paradigm to discover and develop immune cell therapies, initially for cancer. ArsenalBio’s foundation stems from the contributions of scientific leaders from a consortium of academic medical and research institutions.
Investors include Westlake Village BioPartners, the Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy (PICI), Kleiner Perkins, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Foundation Investment Company, Euclidean Capital, and Osage University Partners.
“Our goal is to address the unmet need and suffering of patients with cancer, and ultimately other diseases, by developing and advancing a new paradigm of human immune cell therapy design and treatment,” said Ken Drazan, MD, ArsenalBio’s founding Chief Executive Officer. “The integrated technology approach we’re embarking upon will create a new arsenal of tools and medicines for researchers, patients and their physicians to reduce cancer morbidity and mortality.”
Today’s commercialized, first-generation T cell therapies are designed and manufactured with the goal of inserting into T cells a single cell-targeting transgene, a chimeric antigen receptor or a new T cell receptor through viral delivery. ArsenalBio seeks to exponentially advance this process by precisely inserting, without viral vectors, significantly larger DNA payloads, designed with proprietary tools and encoding a broader set of biological “software” instructions to enable immune cells to effectively target and destroy solid organ and hematologic cancers. ArsenalBio’s approach will move beyond the current model of tumor-targeting strategies to enable the rewiring of immune cell circuitry through computationally driven design. The company aspires to evolve critical metrics of success for immune cell therapies, including enhanced and broader efficacy, increased patient safety, reduced provider costs, and expanded market access.
“The technology ArsenalBio is developing represents a significant advance in how cancer could be treated. The experience leaders such as Jane Grogan, Michael Kalos and Tarjei Mikkelsen bring, combined with Dr. Drazan’s results-oriented management approach, will help rapidly advance this transformational platform to benefit patients,” added Beth Seidenberg, MD, co-founding Managing Director of Westlake Village BioPartners, a Los Angeles area-based venture capital firm focused on incubating and building life sciences companies.
“ArsenalBio is taking different approaches to gene editing, target selection, cell circuit engineering, and computation to reimagine dosing, delivery, persistence, and affordability of cell therapy. The networks of pharma, science, and talent relationships of PICI, Westlake and Kleiner Perkins is a booster to ArsenalBio’s remarkable team and R&D progress,” said Brook Byers, Founding Partner of Kleiner Perkins of Menlo Park, CA.
“ArsenalBio allows us to rewrite vast stretches of code to give T cells dramatic new functions–that means they can be made to be more effective at killing cancer and a broad spectrum of other diseases,” said Sean Parker, founder and Chairman of PICI. “It’s also very rewarding to see ArsenalBio born from the deep collaboration of PICI investigators—who worked together across research centers, hospitals and universities on the science behind these technologies. The company’s very existence demonstrates how much faster and better we can get therapies from bench to bedside when we collaborate and put patients first.”