Breaking the mold: New models in research funding

HRA Members Meeting Spring 2018

Traditional research funding mechanisms usually require a regimen of standard documents and peer review processes. At the Health Research Alliance Member Meeting in New York in March 2018, three leading organizations presented their new approaches to accelerate innovation by using novel funding mechanisms.

Partnership with biotech and pharma

With a focus on science management and a team of scientists and other professionals that work closely with a network of laboratories around the world, the CHDI foundation’s funding strategy is using a different approach then grants, RFPs or study section-type periodic peer reviews. CHDI Foundation is a privately-funded, not-for-profit biomedical research organization devoted to a single disease – Huntington’s disease.

Simon Noble, Director of Scientific Communications at CHDI foundation, says their mission is to “collaboratively develop therapeutics” by expanding the precompetitive space and de-risking therapeutic programs to a point where pharma will take them on. The CDHI foundation utilizes internal scientific scientists that manage internal drug program through collaborations as a contract research organization, and also acts as a collaborative enabler for any research group that wants to work on Huntington’s Disease by making resources like reagents, antibodies, mouse models, etc., freely available to the research community. In addition, they emphasize the partnership with biotech and pharmaceutical companies to accelerate potential drug development.

Noble describes the advantages as ‘joint gain from different interests’ by giving collaborators academic freedom and intellectual ownership, while sharing findings and data in real time. It also helps bridge infrastructure gaps and enhances the coordination of activities.

Funding of whole institutes without restriction or oversight

The Kavli Foundation’s funding strategy awards grants to establish whole Kavli Institutes on the campuses of major universities. Kavli institute directors then decide how to spend the grant, without any restriction or oversight from the foundation, except for the requirement that the grant cannot be spent towards faculty salary.
This, according to Chris Martin, Interim Vice President of the Science Programs at The Kavli Foundation, enables institutes to invest in research areas before they become a trend or visible to other funders. He argues that there is no need to evaluate the outcome of those investments, since it takes 25-100 years for basic research to have applicable impact. The Kavli Foundation also endows outreach efforts, like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) science journalism award and establishes Kavli professorships as well as Kavli Prizes that are awarded to scientists for their seminal research advances.

Venture Philanthropy

JDRF, a public non-profit global organization funding type 1 diabetes (T1D) research, also started to implement nontraditional funding strategies. “We must catalyze T1D investment by pooling our business and philanthropic resources,” said Micheal Batten, Director of Strategic Partnerships at JDRF. Batten focuses on facilitating venture creation and syndicated venture investments around scientifically and commercially promising T1D research to create a market for T1D investments and fundamentally change development and ecosystem by investing and educating stakeholders. The newly implemented T1D fund is an example of a scalable, mission-driven platform that funds companies directly. It is an independently managed venture philanthropy fund that focuses on early-stage commercial investments.

But how to get started with venture philanthropy? Batten suggested to take small steps and only apply the strategy to one focus area before expanding. He referenced FasterCures as a resource for venture philanthropy.

Ultimately, funders have different options to expand their research funding strategies and there seems to be general interest in expanding the traditional model and leverage more unconventional funding mechanisms.