A Diabetes Foundation Jumps Into Venture Philanthropy in a Big Way

Of the nearly 30 million people in the United States who have diabetes, only around 5 to 10 percent have been diagnosed with the type 1 form. The basic difference, here, is that type 2 diabetes means your body isn’t using the insulin it produces properly; type 1 means your body doesn’t produce insulin at all.

Since type 1 diabetes (T1D) is typically diagnosed in children and young adults, it was once referred to as "juvenile diabetes." The term has largely fallen out of favor with the scientific and medical community. But the leading organization funding type 1 diabetes research worldwide has held fast to the term while moving forward with its mission of prevention, treatment, and cure for type 1 diabetes.

The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) has been on the mission to “turn type one into type none” since 1970. Since then, it has contributed over $2 billion in T1D research funding to nearly 100 organizations in the United States. This outfit has poured a ton of money into T1D research and it is nowhere near slowing down.

JDRF recently announced the launch of its $42 million venture philanthropy vehicle, the JDRF T1D Fund. The hefty donations used to establish the fund are courtesy of a $32 million commitment from JDRF and $10 million in investments from outside donors.

Related: A Funder Partners With Big Pharma for Diabetes Research

The sole mission of JDRF T1D is “identifying and funding the best early-state high impact T1D commercial opportunities." For now, the fund will focus its attentions on backing early stage, high-impact companies that are committed to accelerating JDRFs mission to prevent, treat and cure diabetes. According to the press release, the fund seeks the most promising early investments in “the areas of artificial pancreas, metabolic control, encapsulation and replacement, and prevention, and restoration therapies.”

While JDRF has an eye on future donations for the fund—it aims to raise $80 million over the next two years—it’s already moving money.

The amount is undetermined, as the terms are undisclosed. However, shortly after its launch, the fund announced its investment in the diabetes management company Bigfoot Biomedical. The funding will back Bigfoot’s “smartloop” program. Smartloop is an insulin delivery service program using cloud technology that interfaces with “wearable insulin delivery and glucose monitoring tools,” allowing subscribers to have their medical supplies delivered through a monthly subscription.

Backing such a high-tech innovation with only one recently completed clinical trial under its belt seems a bit risky for a nearly 50-year-old institution like JDRF. After all, it’s not unusual for older organizations to get stuck supporting decades-old work, pouring resources into safer, older hypotheses, hoping for a breakthrough. But JDRF isn’t really one of those outfits that's happy to travel those well-beaten paths of longstanding hypotheses.

While it has been around since 1970, this is an organization that consistently keeps an eye on innovation—which inherently means taking risk. And although JDRF certainly supports better T1D management and treatment, what it’s really gunning for are breakthroughs. The JDRF T1D Fund may be the organization’s latest incarnation of this mission, but it’s not the first.

Related: Incrementalists Need Not Apply: $110,000 a Year for T1D Breakthroughs

JDRFs Innovative Grants program offers seed funding for “highly innovative research” with the potential to change the “current paradigm or conventional wisdom and/or lead to a groundbreaking discovery.” This non-renewable $110,000 grant does not support work that advances existing T1D science, research, and theories by a few degrees. The Innovative Grant program seeks out trailblazers. Clearly, the same goes for the JDRF T1D Fund.