By Chris Rovzar, Vanity Fair
By Chris Rovzar.
"It's almost a theorem that can be mathematically proven," said Russian investor and early Facebook backer Yuri Milner at a Vanity Fair-hosted talk on Saturday morning at South by Southwest in Austin, TX. "If you want to get disproportionate returns you have to go against the flow."
Milner was interviewed by Vanity Fair contributing editor Bethany McLean during a wide-ranging, big-idea morning session of SXSW Interactive that was attended by hundreds of lanyard-wearing listeners. The two discussed Milner's high-flying tech investment goals (his Digital Sky Technologies has backed Zynga, Twitter, Spotify and Groupon), and the philosophy behind his creation of the controversial $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize.
Much of the talk centered around Milner's most famous investment; he told McLean that when he met Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, he knew he'd found someone who was not only a visionary, but someone who would figure out monetization in short order. "I saw somebody who was clearly a genius and who was on a mission," Milner said. "You don't really meet those people often, and it's always a miracle when you actually do meet such a person. It didn't take me a lot of time to recognize that. That was almost intuitive decision, alongside some mathematical calculations, to back him."
Truly groundbreaking founders, Milner says, are fiercely competitive and uniquely driven. "Many people underestimate the kind of qualities that you need to have to be a successful founder," he told McLean. "The level of sacrifice that one needs to take to be able to create something significant is almost universally underestimated." It is, he said, "slightly inhuman" to be an entrepreneur.
McLean then turned the conversation to the Fundamental Physics Prize, the most financially valuable academics prize in the world, which Milner instituted in 2012 to encourage scientific achievement. "A trader on Wall Street should not necessarily be making ten times more than the best scientist in the world," he argued. "I wanted to send a message to the people who are deciding what to do, and the smartest of them are not necessarily choosing science any more."
"This prize is targeted at making a few heroes in our society that would be known to a large number of people, similar to the celebrities in entertainment and sport and business," Milner added. "I think it's unfortunate that we don't have enough heroes that are admired by a large portion of the population because of their scientific achievements."
Throughout the discussion, attendees had been tweeting questions to the hashtag #askmilner. Midway through the conversation, McLean turned to a screen showing those questions and tossed them Milner's way. One question regarded IBM's longterm sustainability--the company has been around for over 100 years. Which tech companies, the Tweeter wondered, did Milner think would have a similar lifespan? "Google will last 100 years," he declared confidently. "Facebook will, and Wikipedia will."
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