Yuri Milner, who made $1 billion from investments in Facebook, Twitter, Zynga and Groupon, has awarded nine initial prizes worth $3 million each to recognize advances in the field of fundamental physics, dealing with the basic laws of nature.
The nine winners will now form a committee to select a winner, or winners, for next year, Milner said.
The prizes were awarded to the "greatest minds working in the field of fundamental physics" and specifically for recent advances, Milner told the British newspaper The Guardian.
In emphasizing fresh achievements, Milner said, the prize will help physicists who are still highly active in research.
This is in contrast to the Nobel Prize in Physics, whose recipients are often at the end of their careers and whose theoretical insights have required decades of experiments for confirmation.
Milner, 50, left Moscow State University in 1985 with an advanced degree in theoretical physics but abandoned his doctoral studies in physics to pursue an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania.
When asked about the monetary level of his awards -- almost triple the $1.1 million that goes with a Nobel prize -- Milner said, "The best minds in fundamental physics deserve that level of recognition.
"There's no mathematical formula of how I came up with that number, but I wanted to send a message that fundamental science is important, so the sum had to be significant," said Milner, who has homes in Moscow and in California's Silicon Valley.