Billionaire Blavatnik Lets Money Talk at Young Scientists Awards

Philanthropy gets complicated. Having one’s name etched in stone or being feted at a gala can come across as vainglorious. Anonymous giving lacks transparency and makes it difficult to build the social networks that often help a project succeed.

Len Blavatnik, a U.S. and U.K. citizen born in Odessa, Ukraine, with a net worth of $25.3 billion, has his name on plenty — a hall at the Victoria & Albert Museum, the first tier at Carnegie Hall, the school of government at Oxford. But at a New York dinner Monday to present the Blavatnik National Awards for Young Scientists, he avoided the spotlight in a conspicuous way: by never saying a word into the microphone. The explanation proffered by the scientists attending and the prize’s spokeswoman: it’s Blavatnik’s way of communicating that the evening isn’t about him, but about the scientists his money supports.

Since 2014, Blavatnik has given $250,000 in unrestricted funding to 18 scientists and engineers working in the U.S., age 42 or younger. Since 2007, he’s handed out other grants totaling more than $8.4 million to 284 researchers. In Israel and the U.K., the top award is $100,000.

As for the dinners — in New York, Jerusalem and London –they are inspired by the elegance of the Nobel Prize ceremony Blavatnik attended with Ellis Rubenstein, head of the New York Academy of Sciences. It was there that Blavatnik hatched his awards, with the idea that early money and recognition could make an impact, while Nobel money comes after the work is done.

The black-tie affair at the American Museum of Natural History was certainly glamorous, with Blavatnik’s friends and business and philanthropy associates perhaps more used to formal attire than the scientists. The 225 guests included Paul Singer of Elliott Management, former Citigroup Chairman Sandy Weill, Charles Hale of Hale Global, Sig Heller of Perella Weinberg Partners, Avi Fischer of Clal Industries, and John Skipper, executive chairman of DAZN Group, owned by Blavatnik’s Access Industries.

As for the three prize winners: they wore ball gowns, and their prize experience included having their hair and makeup done in the afternoon at the ArtHouse Hotel, a few blocks from the museum.

As the evening began, a photographer stood at the entrance to capture guests on a carpet decorated with the Blavatnik awards shield. Inside, waiters wearing the crest in pin form passed small bites of beef tenderloin with foie gras. Trumpeters signaled the start of dinner and Juilliard students performed an orchestral version of Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” as the finalists were called to the stage. There were piles of anemones and roses on the tables, gold-rimmed water and wine goblets, and glittery-gold cake pops as a parting treat.

“It elevates the science,” Blavatnik said in a brief interview as the trumpeters trumpeted. “It’s black tie because it makes science even more attractive, more glamorous, so it can attract more young people to become scientists.”

For all the pomp and circumstance, it was when the scientists shared their work that they really sparkled, for their intelligence, passion, creativity and drive.

Over the spaghetti squash tart, Heather Lynch of Stony Brook University said she’s modeling the population of penguins by analyzing decades of satellite information, aided by machine learning, as well as by spending four months a year in the Antarctic. Her work is documenting and predicting the response of the species to climate change. On a recent sabbatical, she put ecology aside to audit courses at Stony Brook in quantitative finance. What she learned: “It’s not a magical set of math,” Lynch said in an interview. “It’s the same math. You’re making forecasts.”

Ana Maria Rey of the University of Colorado told of developing the world’s most accurate atomic clocks as guests contemplated their morel-dusted filet mignon. The clocks aid in GPS and also pave the way for quantum computing, where she said the U.S. needs to catch up with China. She immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia 20 years ago.

Dessert — a milk chocolate souffle tart or yuzu-lemon bar– was paired with Harvard’s Emily Balskus discussing microbes in the human gut. She’s found one that eats away at the Parkinson’s drug L-dopa, providing a possible explanation as to why some patients need stronger doses than others. Her lab is at work on a treatment that can stop that microbe.

The master of ceremonies and only speaker on stage besides the winners was Cornell University President Martha Pollack. She delivered a science-themed joke about a genie in a bottle: the students have wished themselves away on vacation while the professor uses the third wish to get them back into the lab. And she handled all the pleasantries, including an expression of gratitude for Blavatnik while his image flashed on big screens, a live shot from his seat next to the winners. Blavatnik did go up on stage to give the winners their medals and kiss them on both cheeks. He also joined them for the finale, a “toast to science,” over Champagne.