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Who Is the Russian Billionaire Who Just Pledged $100 Million to Find Alien Life?

Yuri Milner is a venture capitalist with a scientist’s heart.

by Rachel Pick
Jul 20 2015, 8:30pm

Photo: Encouragement/Flickr

Today, on the 46th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, billionaire tech investor Yuri Milner announced his next venture: the search for extraterrestrial life.

The Breakthrough Listen project, launched with the support of physicists Stephen Hawking and Frank Drake, will fund hours of observation on radio telescopes in West Virginia and New South Wales, Australia. But who is this man with insanely deep pockets and a yearning curiosity about alien life?

Yuri Milner with his wife Julia. Photo: Debray Riveros/Wikimedia Commons

Yuri Milner may have made his fortune investing in tech companies, but he actually began his adult life as a student of theoretical physics at Moscow State University, graduating in 1985. He went on to work in the field, but ended up abandoning physics for business, receiving an MBA from Wharton in the early 90s. From there he went on to work at the World Bank, in period he refers to none too fondly as his "lost years."

Milner's involvement with tech began around the turn of the millennium, when he began investing in internet companies that mirrored successful American sites—Russian imitators of Amazon, GeoCities, and eBay. By 2005, he had created Digital Sky Technologies with two partners, and by 2008 Digital Sky had bought a 2 percent stake in Facebook.

Since then, Milner's rise has been like watching a gambler hit triple cherries at the slot machine again and again, with investments in Twitter, Zynga, Spotify, Groupon, and ZocDoc. Unlike most venture capitalists, Milner never wants a seat on the board or any preferential treatment. As Wired wrote in 2011 wrote in 2011, "In effect, his money is like IPO money... without the burden of an IPO."

Whatever Milner's strategy, here is the unassailable result: between 2009 and 2011, DST went from having zero equity to over $12 billion in assets. Milner's house in the Los Altos hills is one of the priciest in the U.S.

Still, financial success hasn't completely refocused Milner's interests, and you can tell he's still a theoretical scientist at heart. Speaking at an event in Yalta in 2011, Milner predicted "the emergence of the global brain, which consists of all the humans connected to each other and to the machine and interacting in a very unique and profound way, creating an intelligence that does not belong to any single human being or computer."

This personal fascination with a collective consciousness seems to underlie his investments both in social media and in the SETI program, which has been on "life support" for quite some time. Milner's funding only plans for the next ten years of the program, but he told Wired he's open to funding the project beyond that cutoff.

Betting on SETI may be Milner's ultimate gamble, but it's hard to argue with his track record so far.