Mark Zuckerberg took a break from his day job as CEO of Facebook on Thursday to talk about scientific research at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropic organization he started with his wife, Priscilla Chan.
Even at CZI, Zuckerberg is very focused on technology. In a livestreamed discussion, Zuckerberg said that one of the challenges involved with cutting-edge research for labs and biotech start-ups is the high cost of computing services. While it's now cheaper than ever to sequence human DNA and generate data on our biological makeup, it's become extremely expensive to store and analyze all the information.
"One of the things we talk about is our cost of compute and our AWS bill," Zuckerberg said, in a chat with Dr. Joseph DeRisi and Dr. Stephen Quake, co-presidents of the Chan Zuckerberg Biohub, a collaboration with biomedical research institutions. "Let's call up Jeff and talk about this."
The CZ Biohub, a research center based in San Francisco, has a broad array of projects underway, ranging from cell biology to early-stage cancer research. Among its benefactors is LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman
Zuckerberg is selling billions of dollars in Facebook stock to fund CZI, which he and Chan started in 2015.
One of Zuckerberg's personal challenges for 2019 was to "host a series of public discussions about the future of technology in society."
Zuckerberg said that, in scientific research, the biggest costs used to be things like staffing up the wet lab, manufacturing drugs and clinical trial research, but computing is now right up there. All of the major cloud providers, including AWS and Google, are seeing a big opportunity to sell into the biotech sector and to support genomics projects.
AWS generated $8.4 billion in revenue in the latest quarter, and Google said in July that its cloud is pulling in $8 billion a year. Microsoft doesn't disclose sales for its Azure cloud, but market share data shows that it's second, behind AWS.
The size of the actual human genome is more than 6 billion letters, which is a massive amount of data that scientists are still in the process of understanding to drive new treatments.
DeRisi, a molecular biologist at the University of California, San Francisco, said in the discussion with Zuckerberg that there are huge challenges for the developing world to afford the costs of computing.
"One of the primary initiatives," DeRisi said is to overcome the "computer barrier."
CZI is on a bold mission to end disease. Along the way, the group is supporting technologies and tools to further research and is funding science projects. Other topics Zuckerberg discussed on Thursday included brain implants, early cancer detection and the latest advances in cell biology.
Clarification: This story was updated to clarify that Zuckerberg is selling stock to finance CZI, while Chan Zuckerberg Biohub is funded by additional benefactors, including Reid Hoffman.