Dr. Wayne Koff, founder and CEO of the Human Immunome Project, discusses the origin of the Michelson Prizes, and Phillip Kim, CEO of Michelson 20MM Foundation, provides an update on the organization’s recent impact venture investments that aim to make the world a fairer place.
By Justin Chapman
Michelson Philanthropies September 2021 all-staff meeting highlighted the work of the Michelson Medical Research Foundation and impact venture investments by Michelson 20MM and Michelson Found Animals.
Read more about our efforts in medical research grants, pet care entrepreneurship, textbook affordability, animal welfare, digital inequity, intellectual property, and career skills services for immigrant women.
Michelson Medical Research Foundation
A signature program at MMRF is the Michelson Prizes, which award funding to early-career researchers. Founded in 2018, the program presents annual scientific awards of $150,000 to young investigators who are applying disruptive concepts and inventive processes to advance human immunology, vaccine discovery, and immunotherapy research on major global diseases.
Judges are currently reviewing the latest round of applications for the Michelson Next Generation Prizes. Additionally, the application deadline for a new award in partnership with Science magazine, called the Michelson Philanthropies & Science Prize for Immunology, is October 1. That will offer one $30,000 grand prize, two $10,000 runner up prizes, and publication in Science.
Dr. Wayne Koff—founder and CEO of the Human Immunome Project, MMRF’s partner in the Michelson Prizes—traced the program’s origin to a conversation he and Dr. Gary Michelson had some years back, when they came to the realization that scientists don’t know much about human immune systems, which Michelson had identified as the common denominator to essentially all human disease.
“Gary had a vision that if you look at the creativity of researchers, and particularly, if you look at those who have won a Nobel Prize over the years, the best work that is done is really in their youth,” Koff recalled. “These young investigators have a hard time getting the catalyzing amount of resources in the early stages of their career. And yet the creativity and the ability of really thinking outside the box occurs when they’re much younger. So Gary and I had a discussion about how we can help in this space.”
“There is no conventional research money for high-risk research, yet you can’t leap a chasm in several small steps. So we’re going to fund high-risk, high-return research, which nobody else does.” —Dr. Gary K. Michelson, Co-Chair of Michelson Philanthropies
Koff said the Michelson Prizes have been very successful in getting early career researchers to think outside the box, to think across diseases, and to come up with new, disruptive ideas that are transforming immunology research.
“There is no conventional research money for high-risk research, yet you can’t leap a chasm in several small steps,” Dr. Michelson added. “Incremental research will not make these kinds of leaps so we’re going to fund high-risk, high-return research, which again nobody else does.”
Dr. Ansuman Satpathy won the Michelson Prize in 2018 when he was a postdoc at Stanford for his research, which combines the disciplines of genomics and human immunology. Since winning the Michelson Prize, he has become an assistant professor of pathology at Stanford, connected with a couple of other Michelson awardees on their projects, and created a new company, Immune AI, that has raised $19 million in venture capital. “He’s at the interface of the immune system and artificial intelligence,” Koff said.
Fellow 2018 Michelson Prize recipient Dr. Laura Mackay, a laboratory head and senior lecturer at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, Australia, continues to do groundbreaking research on how T-cells combat various viral infections and cancer.
“I applaud Gary and Alya Michelson for the vision and the philanthropy associated with this,” Koff said. “I love coming out to L.A. and getting into discussions with Gary and Alya about how we can do even more. These eight investigators—and soon to be nine and 10 investigators—are transforming the whole field of immunology.”
One byproduct of the success of the Michelson Prizes, Koff said, is that the United Arab Emirates has recently reached out about running a series of similar medical prizes. “The name is getting out there—it’s having an impact,” he added.
“There’s a lot of revolutionary research being generated out of the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience.” —Geoffrey Baum, Executive Director of Michelson Philanthropies
In addition to supporting their research, Michelson Prize winners get the opportunity to network with the heads of R&D “of all the vaccine companies” through the Human Immunome Project,” Koff said. “It really gives them the opportunity to catalyze the early stages of careers in ways that I don’t think any other prize out there is doing.”
“Dr. Koff is a giant in the field of vaccine research,” said Geoffrey Baum, executive director of Michelson Philanthropies. “He was working with Anthony Fauci on the development of an AIDS vaccine going back for a generation. We’re just so pleased with the partnership and excited to see where it’s heading with the prizes.”
Baum also pointed out that as part of MMRF, Michelson is deeply invested in the University of Southern California, where he created the USC Michelson Center for Convergent Bioscience. “There’s a lot of revolutionary research being generated out of that institution, too,” Baum said.
This summer, a new nanofabrication laboratory opened in the USC Michelson Center, an innovation hub for research projects ranging from basic science to applied technology that will enable interdisciplinary research with next generation nanomaterials for a wide range of applications. Recently, a new state-of-the-art MRI machine, one of only three in the world, was also installed in the USC Michelson Center.
Michelson 20MM CEO Phillip Kim provided an update on the organization’s recent impact venture investments. “There’s quite a bit of range in our portfolio,” he said, “but our north star is about moving us more quickly toward a world that is a bit fairer and more compassionate.”
Kim announced that the Michelson network of foundations recently made their milestone 50th direct investment—including 22 startups across the ed tech, medical education, financial inclusion, and future work sectors, and another 28 in the human-animal bond, veterinary tech, sustainability, and future food categories. The latest investment is in New Apprenticeship, a company that focuses on bringing underrepresented minorities into tech careers by providing earn-as-you-learn pathways for students.
Kim provided an update on several companies in the portfolio.
“Shameless Pets saw an opportunity in the 63 million tons of food that was being thrown out in the United States each year, and sought a way to rescue unused ingredients and upcycle them into functional animal treats,” he said. “In the year now since they’ve graduated from our accelerator, they’ve secured distribution across thousands of Whole Foods, Wegmans, Target, and Costco locations that upcycled more than 500,000 pounds of food and counting. In the midst of COVID, they were able to close a $6.5 million VC round at a $34 million valuation which represents an 8½ times growth already since they came through our program.”
“Our north star is about moving us more quickly toward a world that is a bit fairer and more compassionate.” —Phillip Kim, CEO of Michelson 20 Million Minds Foundation
Wild Earth is another one of the darlings of the portfolio, he said. The company’s founders recognized that meat in kibble is responsible for up to a third of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the United States, so they engineered a proprietary koji-based protein creation process that produces a natural, clean, and extremely efficient protein.
“In under two years in the market, they’ve replaced 10 million companion animal meals,” Kim said. “That’s the equivalent of saving the lives of 1 million farmed chickens. About 80 percent of users report that their dogs are actually exhibiting health improvements.” The company recently closed a $23 million venture round, putting its valuation at well over $100 million right out of the gate.
One of Michelson’s earliest investments on the education side was Mainstay, which uses behavioral intelligence to send students timely reminders, personalized messages, and empathetic check-in messages that have been shown to improve student outcomes, curbing enrollment decline by between 20 and 30 percent.
“Since we joined the company four years ago, Mainstay has become the country’s No. 1 AI chatbot,” Kim said. “They’ve already directly served over 5 million students and recently closed another $14 million in venture funding just this year.”
Edquity is central to 20MM’s programmatic work. It’s a platform that has completely transformed the face of emergency aid deployment.
“For many students, an unforeseen $300 expense can often mean the difference between dropping out or ditching the semester,” Kim said. “Before Edquity, those aid systems were biased, underutilized, and horribly sluggish, often taking weeks. Those applications are now completed on average in about seven minutes with results and decisions being turned around in 24 hours.”
“Successfully educating people in prison is one of the best antidotes against recidivism.” —Dr. Gary K. Michelson, Co-Chair of Michelson Philanthropies
Edquity has already been successful in deploying over $30 million in aid, he added, and just a year out from Michelson’s first investment in the company, Edquity is looking at a $3 million Series A round from traditional VCs. “This is a great example of how our involvement in a company like this can reshape the way that we talk about and legislators talk about the mechanics of emergency aid distribution,” Kim said.
Over the last year, more than half of the 11 companies 20MM added to its portfolio are led by a diverse founder, he added. Currently, 64 percent of Michelson’s portfolio have diverse representation, a rate four times the average of the broader market.
On September 10, Michelson announced a new partnership with Coalition Venture Studio, which addresses the VC funding gap in which less than 1 percent of total venture capital goes to Black founders. The Coalition platform will give companies the opportunity to meaningfully integrate into larger corporations via mentorship, private pilot programs, and indirect investment.
“We see immediate value for this to the founders of color currently in our portfolio, but it doesn’t stop there,” Kim said, adding that Dr. Michelson recently launched a new IP education initiative with the first cohort of eight Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to support budding inventors and creators on those campuses. “You will see much more to come from the ecosystem that we’re nurturing on this front.”
Dr. Michelson noted that 20MM and Michelson Center for Public Policy (MCPP) were among the earliest voices advocating for providing higher education to prisoners. “Successfully educating people in prison is one of the best antidotes against recidivism,” he said. “We’ve been advocating for quite a while about bringing in high quality education to each of the prisons and to provide peer support groups for them when they get out of prison.”
The Zero-Textbook-Cost program, an effort a decade in the making, gives community college students the assurance that they can expect to pay nothing for textbook costs.
Kim also cited 20MM’s and MCPP’s successful efforts regarding the Zero-Textbook-Cost (ZTC) Degree Pathways program, which has been about a decade in the making. California lawmakers recently allocated $115 million for the program.
“ZTC gives community college students the assurance that they can expect to pay nothing for textbook costs which historically have outpaced inflation by three times and have cost more than community college for many years, sometimes $1,000 a semester,” Kim said. “It’s just very hard to justify in today’s climate, especially when you’ve got something like 50 percent of the student population that’s food insecure and housing insecure.”
Governor Gavin Newsom’s move, he added, builds on the work that Dr. Michelson seeded more than a decade ago as one of the first funders of OpenStax, which today is the largest open educational resources publisher in the world.
The other foundations in the Michelson network also have exciting projects in the works. Michelson Found Animals Foundation’s Pet-Inclusive Housing Initiative recently released a data-rich report with the Human Animal Bond Research Institute which found that property owners and operators can reap significant financial benefits through better retention with updated pet-friendly housing regulations.
Through a recent partnership between Michelson Found Animals and Maddie’s Fund, animal shelters and other organizations completed 10,366 reunions of pets with their families through the No Place Like Home Challenge.
FirstGen, an initiative by Michelson Philanthropies Co-Chair Alya Michelson, recently launched a partnership with Upwardly Global to help immigrant women move from unemployment or low-skilled jobs to full employment relevant to their education and professional backgrounds, called the Career Skills Program. Since May, eight L.A.-based immigrant women have enrolled in the program. Alya Michelson also recently launched a new podcast series about the stories of immigrant women titled “Beautiful Journey.”
20MM is hosting a discussion on “Race and Digital Inequity: The Impact on Poor Communities of Color” at 11 a.m. PT on September 23. The program will feature extraordinary digital equity leaders who will explore the intersectionality of the digital divide and racism.
Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property is partnering with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) to bring intellectual property (IP) education to a new generation of creators, innovators, and entrepreneurs. The HBCU IP Futures Collaborative will connect leading faculty at HBCUs to foster best practices for teaching IP to non-law students. In support of this program, Michelson IP is providing digital curricula, resources, and $25,000 grants to participating institutions.