Some of the world's richest internet entrepreneurs, including Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, have awarded 11 disease researchers $3m (£1.9m) each.
Nine of the recipients of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences are based at US institutions. The other two are from the Netherlands and Japan.
Many of the winners work on cell genetics and how it relates to disease.
One of the sponsors, genetics company founder 23andMe, Anne Wojcicki, said the winners should be household names.
In addition to Mr Zuckerberg, his wife Priscilla Chan and Ms Wojcicki, the prize is sponsored Ms Wojcicki's husband Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, and Yuri Milner, a Russian entrepreneur.
Mr Milner, along with the new foundation's chair, Arthur Levinson, a former chief executive at a biotech company and current chairman of Apple, chose the prize winners.
Cornelia Bargmann, a winner from Rockefeller University, told the website Fast Company that she initially thought it was a practical joke or an internet scam.
"The scale of this is so outsized I think it will have a huge impact on the life sciences," Ms Bargmann said.
From 2014 on, the foundation will award $3m to five scientists each year. There is no age restriction on the prize and past winners can win again.
The 2013 winners are:
Cornelia Bargmann of Rockefeller University, for the genetics of neural circuits and behaviourDavid Botstein of Princeton University, for the mapping of inherited disease in humansLewis Cantley of Weill Cornell Medical College, for the discovery of an enzyme and its role in cancer metabolismHans Clevers of the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands, for describing how problems in signalling molecules can cause cancerNapoleone Ferrara of the University of California, San Diego, for discoveries on tumour growth that have led to therapies for some kinds of cancer and eye diseaseTitia de Lange of Rockefeller University, for research on telomeres, the protective tips on the ends of chromosomes, and how they relate to cancerEric Lander of the Broad Institute of Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for the discovery of ways to identify human disease genesCharles Sawyers of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, for targeted therapy for cancer genesBert Vogelstein of Johns Hopkins University, for research on genes that suppress tumoursRobert Weinberg of MIT, who discovered the first human gene that when mutated causes cancerShinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University and the Gladstone Institutes in San Francisco, for work on developing artificially derived stem cells