UK’s Wellcome Trust to Invest $330 Million into High-Risk Life Science Research

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The UK’s Wellcome Trust, a charitable foundation, announced it is creating the $330 million Leap Fund to invest in high-risk healthcare and life science research.

The idea is to assist in accelerating the commercialization of research coming out of universities and companies. The fund will launch in 2020, operate for an initial five years, and be comprised of about five percent of Wellcome’s charitable investments during that period. It expects to hire a chief executive in the new couple months.

The Leap Fund is expected to operate as a not-for-profit, with a goal of funding breakthrough innovations in five to 10 years. It will work in parallel, but independently, with the charity’s existing funds, with the Leap funding being generated from the trust’s Reserve Fund that was founded in September 2017.

“We hope that by 2030, the Leap Fund will have produced a small number of breakthroughs on a vastly accelerated timescale,” said Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome Trust director, in a statement. “These may open up entirely new areas of research, allow new scientific questions to be answered, change existing practice within a field or deliver transformative health benefits. We do not expect all projects to succeed, but we think the possibilities are incredibly exciting. And in taking some risks and backing at scale, we think we can deliver transformational developments that will improve people’s lives around the world.”

The Leap Fund will intentionally be funding what is being called “blue sky” or “out of the box” projects.

In an interview with STAT, Farrar indicated that groups like the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) or the British version, 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.” That, he suggests, “perhaps takes us down a too-conservative route. So this is trying to break that mold.”

The fund’s name, Leap, is a reference to the idea that although much research is incremental and slow, sometimes, with the right stimulus, can make a big jump in progress. “Just every so often something really truly transformative—tangential, often may come from a different field,” Farrar told STAT, which “opens up a new line of inquiry which really very few people had thought would be possible or could happen.”

He also points out that those leaps are not necessarily from biology, but might come from engineering, physics or computer science.

Robert Langer, an MIT bioengineering professor, agrees, telling STAT, “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. 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, 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.”

This approach is similar to what we are seeing coming out of Silicon Valley, where many of the big names in the tech industry, such as Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, are investing significant amounts of money—much larger than the Leap Fund, generally speaking—into health and life science initiatives.

The Wellcome Trust is the second largest funder of biomedical research—the first is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And it is of note that in June, the Gates Foundation spun off a biotech company called The Bill & Melinda Gates Medical Research Institute (MRI), which will be located in Boston. It too will be focused on investments in promising research that it can assist in taking through early-to-middle stage drug development.

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