ne of the world’s largest biomedical research charities is setting up a new $330 million initiative to fund high-risk projects — an effort it hopes can help researchers challenge the status quo in the life sciences.
The Wellcome Trust says that it is establishing what it is calling the Leap Fund — an independently run offshoot that will seek out and provide funding for outside-the-box science.
The idea is to support research that is simply not a sure enough bet for more traditional funding bodies, Wellcome’s director, Dr. Jeremy Farrar, told STAT in an interview.
Established funding bodies — like the National Institutes of Health or its British equivalent, the Medical Research Council — are “quite rightly a little bit conservative, because funding is tight and people want to fund things that they really think are going to work,” he said.
That “perhaps takes us down a too-conservative route,” he said. “So this is trying to break that mold.”
The fund will have an initial endowment of £250 million — roughly $330 million — for its first five years of operation. That is the equivalent of about 5 percent of what Wellcome would normally spend to fund research over a five-year period.
Scientific advances typically follow a couple of paths. Most develop through the slow, incremental work in a field — each step building on a foundation already laid. But occasionally progress takes a giant step, hence the leap analogy from which the new fund gets its name.
“Just every so often something really truly transformative — tangential, often may come from a different field — opens up a new line of inquiry which really very few people had thought would be possible or could happen,” Farrar said, pointing to gene editing technology or PCR — polymerase chain reaction —testing as examples.
“Often these will come, not just from biology but also from engineering and physics and computer science,” Farrar said. “They take you a number of steps up the ladder rather than just the next one. And I don’t think in the current funding climate anywhere globally really — certainly in the academic world — that this ability to fund that sort of approach is really facilitated.”
Major figures in the world of research concurred.
“It is extremely difficult in today’s world to get funds for high-risk projects, all the more so when the potential grantee has not already completed substantial work on their proposed project,” Robert Langer, a star Massachusetts Institute of Techonology bioengineering professor whose broad-ranging research is almost a paradigm for this type of work, said in a statement.
“Many grants today are funded along the lines of a single scientific discipline. By enabling funding from teams representing a range of disciplines … new scientific areas can emerge and be encouraged,” he said “and the students, faculty and others who participate in such endeavors will have the potential to grow in ways that are often not possible through conventional, single disciplinary, grants.”
The push to fund research teams composed of experts drawn from a number of fields appears to be something of a trend in philanthropy. It’s a hallmark of the efforts of the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, a foundation started by Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan. It is also an emphasis of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; when Bill Gates announced a special grant call this spring to spur development of a universal flu vaccine, applicants were urged to include on their teams people with a diversity of research expertise, including artificial intelligence and bioinformatics.
The Wellcome Trust is now looking for a CEO to run the Leap Fund. There is an expectation that the majority of the projects funded will not end up revolutionizing medicine or science. That’s the reality, when you are funding high-risk ventures. A success rate of between 10 percent and 20 percent would be “tremendous,” Farrar said.
Initially, at least, all the funding will come from the Wellcome Trust, the second largest funder of biomedical research after the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. If it succeeds, however, that might change over time.
“If I was dreaming, I would think that in years to come it will be a success and others would either want to join or would set up their own, with maybe the same or a different model,” said Farrar. “But at the moment, the money is only from us.”