Why Independent Institutes Have an Edge with Ellison

As of November 2013, the Ellison Medical Foundation is no longer pursuing biomedical grantmaking. Please read our article about the foundation's sudden announcement here.

For a lot of foundations, it's the same old story: They give their bread to the Big Boys, the heavies, the household-name research universities, the Ivy Leaguers. When one scrolls down the list of recipients at many foundations, it's almost a foregone conclusion that the money will go to Harvard, or Columbia, or maybe Yale. But never to one of the little guys. Never some obscure West Coast lab with 20 staffers and a shoestring budget.

Of course, the best, most exciting, most cutting-edge science often comes from the little shoestring guys. With small size come agility — the agility to follow the latest research and most experimental techniques. No one understands this better than the Ellison Medical Foundation. (See Ellison Medical Foundation: Grants for Brain Research and Treatment.) The philanthropy hands out $40 million to $50 million annually, and while it doesn't exclude big players such as Harvard from its RFAs, overall the money is more likely to go to places off the beaten track. Recently, Ellison granted $600,000 to Brian Kennedy, PhD, of the Buck Institute for Research on Aging — a small, independent lab in Novato, California — for his work in linking ribosomal proteins to "healthspan," or the period of life free from pain and chronic diseases. Another recent award went to Jennifer Trowbridge, PhD, of Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor, Maine. Trowbridge is using epigenetics to study how stem cells age. In Maine.

All this lines up perfectly with Ellison's desire to fund up-and-coming science. (Read Ellison Medical Foundation Executive Director Kevin Lee's IP profile.) Big research schools often carry with them a burgeoning mantel of bureaucracy, making it hard for truly innovative scientists within such institutions to do their work. Pursuing out-there research techniques or hypotheses isn't that appealing when every decision requires a lengthy board meeting. It's like a whale trying to navigate a fast-moving stream: It just does not go smoothly. By contrast, the sprightly minnow-size labs and institutes are much quicker to pick up on new science, and Ellison is right there, ready to reward the labs where information and science flow freely from department to department, with few bureaucratic hurdles.

If you're affiliated with an independent non-profit lab or institute and want a piece of EMF's money: Go For It.