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Who Is Russia's Star Voyager?

  • Antoine Blua

Yury Milner holds up a "Starchip" in the presence of renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking in New York on April 12

Yury Milner holds up a "Starchip" in the presence of renowned cosmologist Stephen Hawking in New York on April 12

Yury Milner was born in Moscow in 1961, the same year the hero he was named after -- Yuri Gagarin -- became the first human to journey into outer space.

But the announcement that the Russian billionaire is teaming up with renowned British cosmologist Stephen Hawking on a $100 million space adventure has Milner's star on the rise.

The project, announced on the 55th anniversary of Gagarin's feat, aims to send tiny spaceships to another star system at near lightspeed within a generation. The project -- combining Milner's vision, money, and lifelong love of science with Hawking's otherworldly intelligence, scientific theories, and research -- promises to take the study of space into an entirely new world.

But who is Yury Milner, Russia's mysterious star voyager?

A Physicist Turned Businessman

Milner, 54, is known for being an early backer of very profitable social-media firms such as Facebook and Twitter, and for using the resulting profits to fund multimillion-dollar scientific projects and awards.

He studied theoretical physics at Moscow State University and started a PhD in particle physics, while at the same time launching his business career by selling personal computers in the Soviet Union's gray market.

In 1990, Milner traveled to the United States to earn an MBA and later spent some time at the World Bank in Washington as a specialist in Russian banking.

He also held high positions at financial-services companies created by Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky. He led Russia's biggest web portal,, before investing in Internet companies in Russia and Eastern Europe.

A Successful Venture Capitalist

Milner has since amassed a personal fortune estimated at $2.9 billion, according to Forbes, by funding some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley.

He made headlines in 2009 when his venture capital firm, DST Global, poured $200 million into a start-up called Facebook. He invested another $400 million in Twitter in 2011.

In a 2012 interview, Milner said his focus on social networking reflected the insight he gained from watching the Russian Internet market develop at the turn of the century as the market for print media was weakening.

"At the time, I was probably the best-informed person in the world about social-networking monetization," he told The New York Times.

Milner also bet big on Chinese technological companies, including online retailers Alibaba and, and the smartphone manufacturer Xiaomi.

DST Global has gained such a reputation that it attracted $1.7 billion last year for future investments.

Meanwhile, Milner earned his place among the world’s elite venture capitalists, with Fortune magazine's 2010 list of the world's most prominent businessmen placing him in 46th place. In 2012, Bloomberg Markets Magazine included him on its list of the 50 Most Influential.

A Backer Of Scientific Research

Milner has donated more than $200 million to philanthropic science projects over the past years, including the Fundamental Physics Prize -- later named the Breakthrough Prizes.

Every year, the prizes award members of the scientific community with $3 million each in the fields of fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics.

"I wanted this amount to be meaningful," Milner told the Reuters news agency in 2012. "I think top scientists need to be compensated at a different scale in society. Somebody with experience will tell you that true scientists are not motivated by money. They are motivated by the quest itself. That is true. But I think an additional recognition will not hurt."

Milner has teamed up with Hawking before, in 2015, when they announced the $100 million Breakthrough Listen, a decadelong search for intelligent life beyond the solar system.

"The universe is not teeming with life, but we’re probably not alone," Milner told Time magazine. "If we were alone, it would be such a waste of real estate. But I don’t want to be the judge. I just want to help find an answer."

On April 12, Milner and Hawking again made headlines when they announced their latest $100 million venture.

The plan is to create a fleet of "Starchips" -- super-compact, light-propelled space vehicles (or "nanocraft") about the size of a postage stamp. A giant laser beam would send them to Alpha Centauri, a star-system 4.37 light years from Earth.

Milner said the plan is probably "half a lifetime away" and billions of dollars of investment is needed to fund the project.

"The human story is one of great leaps," said Milner in a statement. "Fifty-five years ago today, Yuri Gagarin became the first human in space. Today, we are preparing for the next great leap -- to the stars."