Russian billionaire Yuri Milner’s early backing of Facebook, Twitter had Kremlin ties

Russian billionaire Yuri Milner gained fame and wealth as an early backer of Facebook Inc., Twitter Inc. and different Silicon Valley start-ups.

Called “Russia’s most influential tech investor” by Forbes, Milner’s wealth has enabled him to badociate with Facebook Chairman Mark Zuckerberg in scientific philanthropy, type a spacecraft initiative with famed physicist Stephen Hawking, and purchase some of the costly properties within the U.S.

But now the expertise investments that introduced him riches have come beneath heightened scrutiny amid inquiries into potential Russian meddling in final yr’s presidential election.

Leaked paperwork referred to as the Paradise Papers confirmed that Milner’s Facebook funding, organized by his funding agency DST Global, acquired financing from a subsidiary of the Kremlin-controlled power large Gazprom.

They additionally confirmed that Milner’s Twitter funding had backing from VTB, a Russian state-controlled financial institution among the many entities positioned beneath U.S. sanctions since 2014 for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its incursions in japanese Ukraine.

The revelations had been reported by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which together with 95 media companions explored the leaked Paradise Papers information obtained by the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung.

No one is suggesting that Milner or his companies had been concerned in any wrongdoing. But revelations of the Russian authorities’s ties to his tech-world investments come as U.S. lawmakers are investigating how Russian operatives had been in a position to make use of Facebook, Twitter and different web platforms in hopes of influencing final yr’s election. Congressional committees held hearings on the matter final week.

“Today, with all the intense conversation taking place regarding Russia, as part of due diligence people naturally want to look carefully where the money is coming from,” stated Thomas Cooke, a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.

Milner issued a public badertion saying it was a “fairy tale” to counsel “we were working on Russia’s behalf to turn social media against U.S. democracy.”

“When I settled with my family in Silicon Valley, I found a community that didn’t care where you came from, only who you were and what you had to offer,” Milner stated. “Since the 2016 election, nonetheless, there was a change within the air. Just to be Russian, all of a sudden, is to be beneath suspicion.

“And by the best way, accepting funding from a Russian financial institution doesn’t robotically make you a Kremlin agent,” Milner stated. “In reality, DST Global’s investments in Silicon Valley were motivated by pure business logic.”

Milner’s agency divested its holdings in Facebook and Twitter a number of years in the past after every of these firms had their preliminary public inventory choices.

“As a pbadive investor DST … had no voting rights or board seat,” a Facebook spokeswoman informed The Times on Monday. “The investment was made eight years ago and DST Global has since sold all their holdings in Facebook — their stake ended five years ago when we went public.”

A Twitter spokesperson confirmed that DST Global led a spherical of investments in 2011 and divested from the social media firm in 2014. “As a matter of policy, Twitter conducted reviews of all pre-IPO investors,” the spokesperson stated.

After promoting these stakes, Milner’s DST Global continued to speculate a number of billion in lots of different U.S. and overseas internet-related companies that grew to become tech-world stalwarts, together with Airbnb, Spotify and Alibaba.

Milner additionally invested $850,00zero of his private cash final yr in a real-estate investing agency referred to as Cadre that’s partially owned by the household of Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, Bloomberg reported.

“This investment, like any other, was made on a purely commercial basis,” Milner stated. “It no more implies a personal relationship with Mr. Kushner than buying some shares in Wal-Mart gets you invited to Thanksgiving with [founder] Sam Walton’s family.”

DST Global famous in a press release that it was a pbadive investor in Facebook and Twitter and “there is nothing unusual” about a world funding agency accepting money from sovereign states resembling Russia.

That’s true, stated Michael Maduell, president of Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, a badysis group that research sovereign funds.

“Every major country is doing it,” he stated. “You have the Saudis with their public investment fund investing in Uber, you have the China Investment Corp. and the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund.”

In the case of Milner’s investments, “a lot of these deals happened before the Russian sanctions,” Maduell stated. “Russia was also getting a lot of investment before this stuff. The script flipped after Crimea. That’s when sanctions came up.”

Milner, who turns 56 on Saturday, grew up in Moscow. He earned a level in physics from Moscow State University in 1985 however later deserted physics, studied enterprise on the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School and labored on the World Bank for 3 years.

He returned to Russia and later took management of Mail.ru, a serious Russian web firm. With his agency’s preliminary funding in Facebook in 2009, he set his sights on the U.S. expertise business.

As his expertise bets paid off, Milner’s wealth soared. Forbes estimates his web value at $three.5 billion.

In 2011, Milner purchased a 25,500-square-foot French chateau-style property in Los Altos Hills in Silicon Valley for $100 million, among the many highest costs ever paid for a single-family house within the United States.

The wealth Milner has ambaded has allowed him to advertise his ardour for science, devoting a bit of his fortune to futuristic pursuits.

Milner, Zuckerberg and others in 2013 began the Breakthrough Prize, which rewards high scientists with profitable prizes.

Two years in the past, Milner and his spouse co-founded the Breakthrough Initiatives, a collection of applications centered on house exploration. Those initiatives embrace Breakthrough Listen, a $100-million program centered on discovering life past Earth, and Breakthrough Message, a $1-million competitors to create a message that might symbolize Earth to an alien civilization.

Last yr, Milner and Hawking introduced a $100-million badysis program, referred to as Breakthrough Starshot, aimed toward creating a proof-of-concept for a tiny spacecraft propelled by a lightweight beam that might journey to the Alpha Centauri star system. Zuckerberg is also on this system’s board.

Several billionaires have sunk their fortunes into the house business, most notably SpaceX’s Elon Musk, Blue Origin’s Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson, who has a trio of house firms. But Milner’s efforts are completely different.

While Musk, Bezos and Branson are centered on constructing enterprise fashions and buyer bases for his or her business house plans, Milner is concentrated extra on moonshots, stated Bill Ostrove, aerospace and protection badyst for Forecast International.

“These breakthrough missions are sort of a different beast,” he stated. “They don’t really seem to be focused on building a long-term business.”

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Times workers author Samantha Masunaga contributed to this story.


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