Three days after announcing a $17 million donation to Harvard, activist investor Bill Ackman disappeared into a roomful of scientists to decide where his and his wife’s next gift should go.
At the April 17 meeting, a panel chose 12 finalists for the first Pershing Square Sohn Prize for Young Investigators. The winners, to be announced May 5 at the Sohn Investment Conference (produced by Bloomberg Link, a division of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News), will each receive $200,000 a year for as many as three years.
“Talk to Olivia, she deserves the credit,” said Ackman, founder of Pershing Square Capital Management LP, at the post-meeting reception.
He was referring to Olivia Flatto, executive director of the Pershing Square Sohn Cancer Research Alliance. The chief architect of the prize, Flatto decided it should focus on young New York-based researchers with bold ideas.
“We’re are looking for the most innovative projects with the best applicants,” Flatto said.
Raised in France, Flatto completed a PhD at the University of Pennsylvania in molecular biology and genetics. She moved from lab positions at the Wistar Institute and Sloan Kettering Institute into roles at the Emerald Foundation, where she directed funding to basic cancer and kidney disease research, and the New York Stem Cell Foundation.
“Olivia is a rare triple play,” said Allen Model, a member of the advisory board of the Pershing Square Foundation, Bill and Karen Ackman’s philanthropic arm. “She’s extremely qualified as an administrator, has an excellent network, and she’s a trained scientist.” Model serves on the board of Howard Hughes Corp. with Ackman and Flatto’s husband, Adam, president of Georgetown Co.
Siddhartha Mukherjee, an assistant professor of medicine at Columbia University, and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer,” said Flatto draws on her experience as a scientist. “She’s very empathetic,” Mukherjee said. “She understands what a huge difference this funding can make.”
The prize targets an age group and a type of science that are often neglected by the National Institutes of Health, said Moses Chao, coordinator of the molecular neurobiology program at the NYU Langone Medical Center. “The highest score I ever got on an NIH grant was for the most boring grant I ever wrote.”
Evaluating innovation isn’t cut and dry. During deliberations, some members of the Alliance’s Scientific Review Council argued the result should matter most, while others wanted to give weight to new ideas for getting there, said Riccardo Dalla-Favera, director of the Institute for Cancer Genetics at Columbia University Medical Center.
They agreed that technology alone wouldn’t advance a proposal. As Joan Massague, Director of the Sloan Kettering Institute, put it, “pen and paper could be the method.”
Guests at the reception and dinner at the Park Avenue Armory included Whitney Tilson of T2 Partners Management and Evan Sohn, who co-founded the Sohn Conference Foundation in memory of Ira Sohn, an investment professional who died from cancer at age 29.
Mukherjee lauded the venture’s spirit of collaboration. “Cancer isn’t somebody else’s problem, it’s our problem,” he said.