Why Billionaire Eric Schmidt Is Backing A High School Senior Making A Cancer-Detecting Toothbrush And Other Brilliant Teens
When James Chau Nguyen’s grandmother was diagnosed with cancer in March 2020, the tumor in her brain was already too big to remove. Nguyen, then just a sophomore in high school in California, took the news particularly hard. Just eight months prior, Nguyen and his mother immigrated to the U.S., leaving them unable to travel back to Vietnam to see her during the pandemic.
“It was a hard time both financially and emotionally,” Nguyen says.
Nguyen felt helpless and began voraciously reading research papers about cancer. While researching emerging cancer immunotherapies, Nguyen came up with a prototype for a toothbrush that uses a nano chip to separate cancerous cells from saliva. He envisions that a compartment in the electric toothbrush charging station would collect the sample, which could then be sent to a lab for analysis using engineered universal CAR-T cells to detect cancer.
The device is currently being tested at a biomedical startup in southern California. While Nguyen’s idea is still highly theoretical, if it works, Nguyen hopes it will become a commercial product that can help people like his grandmother catch cancer early. He hasn’t yet patented the idea, but it’s something he is considering.
“I don’t want many people to experience what my grandma did and or even to experience what I did,” Nguyen says. “And so that’s why I put this project together.”
Nguyen is one of 100 promising teenagers announced Thursday as the second cohort of Rise Global Winners. The $1 billion program, funded by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife, Wendy, aims to identify promising young people aged 15-17 working to solve the world’s thorniest problems. Other 2022 winners include Jacqueline Prawira, a California high schooler who invented a way to use fish scale waste to remove heavy metals from wastewater; Kambiré Cyé Antonio Angelberg, the founder of a group called CMath that organizes national mathematics and physics olympiads in Burkina Faso, and Rishabh Ambavanekar, a teenager who built a brain-computer interface that helps stroke victims communicate. A full list of the winners can be found here.
“This all started because Wendy and I were talking about how we got here, and the answer is that a whole bunch of people helped us,” Eric says, describing the mentorship and encouragement he received from others. The couple wants to do the same for a new generation of creative problem solvers.
Creating the Rise program from scratch is a different approach to philanthropy than what’s being pursued by someone like MacKenzie Scott, who is pouring money into existing nonprofits and institutions at a rapid clip. Forbes estimates the Schmidts, worth an estimated $17.5 billion, have already given nearly $750 million to charitable causes in their lifetimes through a mix of philanthropic initiatives, including the Schmidt Ocean Institute, which works to advance marine research, and the Schmidt Family Foundation, which funds organizations working on a variety of environmental causes.
The Schmidts support this particular model for Rise—finding and supporting talented young people—because “brilliant people, geniuses of different and diverse kinds, can have an outsized impact on solving the problems that are in front of us,” says Eric Braverman, CEO of Schmidt Futures, the philanthropic vehicle running the Rise program. Still, billionaire philanthropy has come under intense scrutiny of late for enabling the wealthy to undemocratically influence our society or avoid taxes. When the Rise program was first announced in 2019, journalist Theodore Schleifer, who now covers money and power in Silicon Valley for the website Puck, argued that the Schmidts could better spend their money on causes that would have a more clear, immediate impact on the world.
“We’ve published what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to make the world a better place. And I love criticism of the form of, ‘This isn’t going to work. You got this wrong. You got the wrong entry position. Your biases are wrong and so forth,’” Eric says. “I’m used to being in the public eye. And I want people to read what we’re doing, and I want them to make it better.”
Rise was founded in 2019 by Eric and Wendy Schmidt in partnership with the UK-based charity Rhodes Trust, which also oversees the Rhodes Scholarship, as an effort to identify future change makers and support them early on. The Schmidts are unapologetic about Silicon Valley-ness of the program. Research shows, they point out, that you can identify exceptional people at around age 16.
“It’s a grand experiment to see if we can systematize the identification of exceptional people at that age,” says Eric, a computer science PhD who served as CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011 and executive chairman from 2011 to 2017. “We think it works. We’ll find out. We’ll get our report card in a few years.”
To get a coveted spot among this group, each applicant has to submit a video, create a project that benefits their community and review other submissions. Winners get a full scholarship to a four-year university of their choice, access to a network of other winners, mentorship opportunities, an invitation to a three-week summit and technology like laptops and tablets. At any point in their lives, Rise winners can also apply for funding from the program for a social enterprise or a nonprofit.
About 13,000 people applied for the program this year and another 107,000 registered for the Rise Global Community, which offers learning materials and other opportunities. The 2022 class of winners represent 47 different nationalities, with equal numbers of young men and women. The winners aren’t just in science, technology, engineering and math. Reese Andrei Stoica, a teen from Romania, created a magazine showcasing transgender bodies. Another teen, Asher Segun-Olasanmi, is trying to combat the stigma around mental health conditions in southwestern Nigeria.
The Schmidts are thinking that bringing these teens together will produce some kind of breakthrough, in the short term and possibly in the much longer term.
“What if people across the world 20 years from now who participated in this program were friends and knew each other and shared resources for all their lives? It would be a powerful force for positive change,” Wendy says.
Source: Rachel Sandler Forbes Staff
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