Having abandoned plans to create a floating city in the South Pacific, billionaire PayPal founder Peter Thiel has his sights set on achieving immortality. Since 2012, the tech tycoon has been funding various life extension projects via his nonprofit tech fund Breakout Labs, which is part of the larger Thiel Foundation. Some of the many projects that Breakout Labs has funded so far include Cortexyme, which works on therapies for Alzheimer's and other degenerative diseases, and EpiBone, which is working on growing replacement bones from human cells.
Russian media billionaire Dmitry Itskov is also fixated on the idea of eternal life. Founded in 2011, his multi-stage 2045 Initiative is aiming to develop immortality within decades by merging humans with machines, creating avatars with 'cybernetic immortality'. However, many scientists are sceptical about the idea, given the amount that we still don't know about the brain.
While Peter Thiel and Dmitry Itskov are on a quest for eternal life, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan are on a mission to heal the world. The power couple have pledged 99% of their Facebook profits to "build a more inclusive, just, and healthy future for everyone" through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which focuses on three core areas: Education, Justice & Opportunity, and Science. The Initiative works by giving grants and investing in ventures, as well as offering out the services of its engineering team so that tech can empower the causes it supports.
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has several jaw-dropping passion projects on the go, but his main focus is Blue Origin. In fact, the world's richest person stepped down from his role as CEO of Amazon in July 2021 in order to focus his attention on the private spaceflight company he founded in 2000. He achieved a life-long ambition to fly to space on Blue Origin's first human flight on 20 July 2021, 52 years after the Apollo 11 moon landing. He was accompanied by his brother Mark, 82-year-old astronaut Wally Funk, and 18-year-old student Oliver Daemen. Bezos says his long-term vision is for Earth's polluting industries to be moved to space.
It’s also been reported that Bezos is an investor in Altos Labs. The start-up is researching technology that can regenerate human cells, potentially curing diseases and prolonging human life. This endeavour seems to have been a passion project for the world's richest man for some time. In a 2020 letter he penned to Amazon shareholders, Bezos wrote, "Staving off death is a thing that you have to work at. … If living things didn't work actively to prevent it, they would eventually merge into their surroundings, and cease to exist as autonomous beings. That is what happens when they die."
Like Jeff Bezos, Tesla CEO Elon Musk has become a major player in the private space race. His SpaceX company was founded in 2002, and in 2009 the company's Falcon rocket became the first privately-funded vehicle to put a satellite into orbit. In 2020, Musk had more success when SpaceX worked with NASA to send a team of astronauts to the International Space Station, the first time NASA had worked with a commercial partner rather than use its own spacecraft, which it retired 10 years ago. Last August, the US Air Force selected SpaceX and United Launch Alliance as its launch providers for the next five years, a move which meant rival Jeff Bezos' $500 million (£366m) contract with the US Air Force to develop its New Glenn rocket in 2018 was terminated, even though the rocket was not yet complete. Musk's long-term aim is to send the first cargo mission to Mars by 2022, with crewed missions following in 2027.
Elon Musk loves a pet project, and he's been bankrolling a company called Neuralink, which hopes to develop brain-machine interfaces – or in other words, tiny computers inserted into our brains. In the past, Musk has shown off the capabilities of the technology. His most famous test subject to date, Gertrude the pig, lived with a computer chip in her brain for two months, and the Neuralink team showed how the implanted device could deliver brain recordings to a computer in real time while Gertrude moved around freely.
Ultimately, Neuralink hopes to use the devices to allow paralyzed humans to control phones or computers, as well as to adjust neural firing patterns and to cure or alleviate disorders stemming from the brain such as depression, OCD and addiction.
Most recently, Musk has run into controversy as whistleblowers at Neuralink have expressed concerns about animal welfare. Staff have alleged that Musk's insistence on rushing brain implant trials has led to the unnecessary deaths of more than 1,500 animals. Such allegations have now kick-started a federal investigation into Neuralink's animal testing. This could thwart Musk's hopes of gaining approval to begin human trials.
Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates launched the world's largest charitable foundation in 2000 with the aim of stamping out extreme poverty and improving healthcare worldwide. The foundation now spends around $5 billion (£3.6bn) a year in grants, and since its inception has given out more than $54 billion (£39.4bn) as of December 2019. The now divorced couple also created the Giving Pledge with Warren Buffett, where it asks billionaires to sign up and promise to give away most of their wealth in their lifetime. Those who have signed up include Jeff Bezos' ex-wife MacKenzie Scott and her new husband Dan Jewett, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Larry Ellison.
Ever-dedicated to female empowerment, "Queen of All Media" Oprah Winfrey opened her Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls (OWLAG) in South Africa in 2007 with an endowment of $40 million (£20.3m) from her own pocket. In April 2019, Oprah revealed she was considering opening a satellite academy in America. In December 2019, OWLAG in South Africa celebrated its ninth graduating class.
Filmmaker George Lucas has set aside $1 billion (£723m) of his Star Wars fortune to build the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art in Los Angeles. The institution, which is expected to open in 2023, will hold paintings, cinematic art, photographs and digital art from Lucas' personal collection.
In 2005, French billionaire François Pinault bought the Palazzo Grassi that faces Venice's Grand Canal and reopened the gallery the following year as a showcase for his spectacular art collection. The retail baron went on to lease and restore the city's Punta della Dogana, previously the customs house, to use as extra gallery space. More recently, Pinault pledged $113 million (£93m) to help rebuild Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral after it caught fire in April 2019.
In 1994, billionaire Carlos Slim Helú opened the Museo Soumaya, which is named after his late wife, to house his breathtaking collection of art and to act as a gift to the city. The Mexico City museum, which moved into a spectacular new building in 2011, has more than 66,000 artworks, including masterpieces by Rodin and Picasso. In October 2015 it received its five millionth visitor.
Eco-minded Norwegian billionaire Kjell Inge Røkke has channelled a significant chunk of his fortune into building the world's biggest yacht, which will collect discarded plastic from the world's oceans. The massive Research Expedition Vessel was due for completion in 2020, but its maiden voyage is yet to take place. The yacht has been described as a "floating think tank" of scientists and experts, who will collaborate to solve problems relating to the ocean.
The only person to build two Fortune 500 companies, billionaire Eli Broad has invested $140 million (£115m) in his eponymous private museum, which opened in 2015. The Downtown Los Angeles institution called The Broad houses the entrepreneur's extensive collection of contemporary art, and is open to the public with free general admission. Before the COVID-19 pandemic it was welcoming 900,000 people a year.
Russian-Azerbaijani magnate Igor Ashurbeyli has created the independent Space Kingdom of Asgardia, a virtual nation in space. In November 2017, the eccentric tycoon launched the Asgardia-1 satellite, which holds the nation's constitution and other foundation information. But the long-term goal is to turn the virtual life on the Moon into a reality by 2043 and a team of scientists are part of the project. Controversially, if you want to be a citizen of the 'space nation' you'll need to pass an IQ test, but over a million people have successfully joined the Kingdom.
Russian-Israeli billionaire Yuri Milner is taking space exploration a step further – by looking for life on other planets. Along with Mark Zuckerberg and with input from the late physicist Stephen Hawking, Yuri Milner runs the Breakthrough Starshot programme, aimed at exploring one of Saturn's moons called Enceladus. The planned mission is riskier than anything attempted by NASA, paving the way for a new era of space exploration funded by the super-rich.
Craig Newmark, the billionaire owner of the Craigslist listings website, has launched the Commission on Information Disorder, which aims to counter the spread of false information in the digital world. Described as "a strong advocate of the use of technology for the public good", Newmark is passionate about tackling fake news. And in April 2021 it was announced that Prince Harry is joining the Commission, part of a nonprofit organisation called the Aspen Institute, on a part-time basis. Other people on the Commission include media tycoon Rupert Murdoch's daughter-in-law Kathryn and former Republican congressman Will Hurd. In a statement, Prince Harry said: "The experience of today’s digital world has us inundated with an avalanche of misinformation, affecting our ability as individuals as well as societies to think clearly and truly understand the world we live in."
Billionaire Marc Lore recently stepped down from his executive position at Walmart. His next move? A $400 billion (£288bn) futuristic city in the desert. Tesola, which is derived from the Greek word Telos meaning the highest purpose, plans to be a cutting-edge sustainable city. Possible locations for the ambitious project include Utah, Texas, Idaho, Arizona, and Nevada and Lore aims to have the first residents move in by 2030. He said, "The mission of Telosa is to create a more equitable and sustainable future. That’s our North Star." Aside from Lore, the endeavour is being funded by a number of other private investors.
Another billionaire competing in the modern-day space race, Richard Branson has dreams of making space tourism a reality. He made history on 11 July 2021 when he became the first man to travel above the boundary of space in a commercial craft. Around 750 people have already put down £325,000 ($450k) deposits for a seat on one of his space planes, which he aims to make available to the public in late 2022.