Chan Zuckerberg Initiative acquires AI startup Meta, will offer its services for free

By Jonah Comstock
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The Chan Zuckerberg Inititative, a philanthropic initiative from Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Dr. Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician, has acquired a startup, Meta, focused on using AI and machine learning to sift through recently published scientific studies. The terms of the acquisition were undisclosed.

Announced in September, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a limited liability company focused on the ambitious goal to "cure, prevent, or manage all diseases by the end of the century." At least $3 billion will be allocated toward that goal, all coming out of Chan and Zuckerberg's Facebook shares.

"In science, peer-reviewed articles are the medium for the global conversation among researchers, and they represent the foundational reference point by which we judge what is known, where science is going, and what to work on next," Meta CEO Sam Molyneux, who cofounded the startup with his sister Amy, wrote in a blog post announcing the acquisition. "But in the 21st century, the speed of science staggers under its own growth. Each day, more than 4,000 scientific papers are published in biomedicine alone. Using current tools, most will not be read by other scientists who can learn from them."

In an effort similar to the work IBM Watson is doing in oncology, Meta seeks to bring AI and machine learning to bear on that problem. The company has already created some tools that do just that. But they will work with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative to scale their work and make it available more widely.

"As part of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, we will unite Meta's capabilities into a single, powerful tool that is available to everyone," Molyneux wrote. "We will provide a truly modern way for researchers to understand the state of scientific knowledge and what’s happening, right now."

In a Facebook post, Cori Bargmann, President of Science, and Brian Pinkerton, Chief Technology Officer of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, clarified that the Initiative plans to make the tool they develop available for free.

"We will be working to make Meta even more powerful and useful for the entire scientific community, and are committed to offering these tools and features for free to all researchers," they wrote. "Meta’s tools can dramatically accelerate scientific progress and move us closer to our goal: to support science and technology that will make it possible to cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century. Meta will help scientists learn from others’ discoveries in real time, find key papers that may have gone unnoticed, or even predict where their field is headed."

It's clear Bargmann and Pinkerton have high hopes for the platform.

"The potential for this kind of platform is virtually limitless," they continue. "A researcher could use Meta to help identify emerging techniques for understanding coronary artery disease; a graduate student could see that two different diseases activate the same immune defense pathway; and clinicians could find scientists working on the most promising Zika treatments sooner. In the long run, it could be extended to other areas of knowledge: for example, it could help educators stay up to date on developmental science to better understand how children learn."

The Toronto-based startup had raised a total $8.7 million since its founding in 2010, according to Crunchbase, with investors including BDC Venture Capital, HighlineVC, iGan Partners, Rho Canada Ventures, and Western Technology Investment.