Yuri Milner, the Russian entrepreneur and investor, attracted some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names to join him in starting a life sciences prize this year. Now, he has wooed a titan from China: Jack Ma.
Mr. Ma, the executive chairman of the Internet giant Alibaba, and his wife, Cathy Zhang, have agreed to become sponsors of the prize, which is the world’s richest for medicine and biology, the group is expected to announce on Friday. Mr. Ma is also joining the board of the foundation that administers the prize, called the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.
Flush with Internet money, the foundation offers $ 3 million awards to scientists, more than twice as much as the Nobel Prize. Mr. Ma’s contribution brings the number of annual prizes to six from five.
Mr. Milner, who studied physics before earning a fortune investing in companies like Facebook, said the addition of Mr. Ma underscored the global nature of the prize. Though most of the recipients this year were American, the prize is open to submissions from around the world.
“Scientists are not making anywhere near what they should be making given the significance of what they’re doing,” Mr. Milner said in an interview. “In the last 50 years, we have evolved from a world where Einstein was the biggest celebrity to a world where the most famous scientist is not in the top few hundred celebrities in the world.”
A celebrity in his own right, Mr. Ma is joining a group of prominent technology moguls at the foundation. In addition to Mr. Milner, the sponsors of the prize include Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google; Anne Wojcicki, a co-founder of the genetics company 23andMe who is Mr. Brin’s wife; Mark Zuckerberg, the chief executive of Facebook; and Priscilla Chan, Mr. Zuckerberg’s wife. Arthur D. Levinson, the chairman of Apple, is the foundation’s chairman.
Mr. Ma, a former English teacher from Hangzhou, founded Alibaba in 1999 as a platform for businesses to trade products like circuit breakers and hydraulic cylinders. Now a giant in online commerce, the company is moving toward an initial public offering that could value it at more than $ 75 billion.
One of the beneficiaries of the I.P.O. will most likely be Mr. Milner, whose firm, DST Global, invested in Alibaba in 2011. But Mr. Milner first met Mr. Ma several years before that, he said, on a trip to China to learn more about the country’s technology industry.
“It is my honor to be able to contribute to innovation in the field of medical research,” Mr. Ma said in a statement. “I hope that this can one day help make a difference in the lives of many.”
The life sciences foundation awarded its prizes this year to 11 scientists, many of whom had done work in the genetics of cell growth and how it can produce cancer. The foundation says it rewards research aimed at finding cures for serious diseases, with one prize reserved for work on Parkinson’s disease.
The period for submitting online nominations for next year’s prize began this month and continues through Oct. 2. Anyone can submit a nomination on the foundation’s Web site.
For Mr. Milner, the prize has a personal dimension. His father died this year after a battle with colon cancer, he said.
“There was no technology in the world he could use to get cured,” Mr. Milner said.