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Meta says its search tool traces connections involving 17 million researchers. (Meta via YouTube)

The multibillion-dollar Chan Zuckerberg Initiative announced its first acquisition today: a startup called Meta that is developing an artificial intelligence program for searching through scientific studies.

“We will be working to make Meta even more powerful and useful to the scientific community, and are committed to offering these tools and features for free to all researchers,” the initiative’s president of science, Cori Bargmann, and chief technology officer Brian Pinkerton said in a Facebook posting.

The acquisition is subject to shareholder and court approval.

Meta was founded in 2010 as a Canadian company by Sam and Amy Molyneux, a brother-and-sister team. According to Crunchbase, it has received at least $7.5 million in venture funding over the past few years. Investors include iGan Partners, Rho Canada Ventures, Horizons Ventures’ Solina Chau and Everline Investments. No details about the financial arrangements for the acquisition were provided.

In a statement, Sam Molyneux said Meta “will provide a truly modern way for researchers to understand the state of scientific knowledge and what’s happening, right now.”

Meta’s search tools are designed to help researchers find what’s most relevant to their interests amid the flood of scientific papers, which are said to number more than 4,000 a day in the field of biomedicine alone.

“The notion that scientific knowledge has out-scaled human efforts is well known, but while AI has solved information bottlenecks in other markets, it has yet to impact the speed of the research ecosystem,” Sam Molyneux said.

The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was established last September by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, to accelerate research aimed at curing the world’s diseases. Meta meshes with that mission. However, Meta isn’t the only free AI-enhanced search and discovery engine designed for scientists.

Google Scholar takes advantage of AI tools – as does Semantic Scholar, a search engine pioneered by the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Semantic Scholar was launched in 2015 as a research tool focusing on computer science, and in November its scope was expanded to keep track of neuroscience research as well. The Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, known as AI2 for short, plans to incorporate the full library of biomedical research by the end of this year.

“It seems that we have the same laudable goal, though somewhat different approaches,” Oren Etzioni, AI2’s CEO, told GeekWire in an email. “For example, you don’t need an account to use Semantic Scholar.”

Correction for 5:20 p.m. PT: The original version of this item said the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative is a $3 billion philanthropic venture, but that figure reflects only what the couple has pledged over the next 10 years toward work in science to cure, prevent or manage disease.

The initiative’s work also includes education, and the couple intends to devote 99 percent of their Facebook shares to advancing the initiative’s overall goal of advancing human potential and promoting equal opportunity. When the initiative was announced last September, the value of those shares was $45 billion.

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