By Clifton Leaf
December 15, 2017

Jonah Comstock at posted the site’s annual roundup of mergers and acquisitions in the digital health arena today. If you’re looking for where the business appetite is these days, the post makes for instructive reading.

But one of the deals sticks out from the rest: the purchase of Meta by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative back at the start of the year. Meta—which, in the words of cofounder Sam Molyneux, uses “artificial intelligence to analyze new scientific knowledge as it’s published”—partners with academic journals to access many thousands of scientific papers and draw insight from them (beyond the keywords, that is) with the help of a machine learning tool developed by SRI International, which created Apple’s spectral personal assistant, Siri.

The idea, as we’ve written about many times in this space, is similar to what IBM Watson is doing in oncology and other fields (and what the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence’s Semantic Scholar is doing)—and it’s one more reminder of just how integral AI is becoming to healthcare technology.

But it’s also a reminder of something else: of how often philanthropic organizations like CZI are leading the charge today when it comes to championing ambitious new healthcare strategies. Consider Chan Zuckerberg’s Biohub, which is embracing big hairy audacious projects like mapping every cell in the human body (with university partners Berkeley, Stanford, and UCSF) and developing a “universal diagnostic test” and rapid-response team for emerging pathogens.

It’s the same playbook that Sean Parker has been using—and many would say designed—with his Parker Institute for Cancer Immunotherapy. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, meanwhile, has been on the vanguard of no-holds-barred public health campaigns in malaria and HIV—efforts that, to some extent, have helped rewrite the rules of engagement.

For decades, it has seemed, the letters NGO stood for “no go fast.” In the fields of health and medicine, at least, that’s no longer the case.


This essay appears in today’s edition of the Fortune Brainstorm Health Daily. Get it delivered straight to your inbox.


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