Across the "Valley of Death." A Health Funding Giant's Big New Plan for Impact

With $25 billion in assets, Wellcome Trust is the second largest foundation in the world. This U.K.-based funder teams up regularly with other giants like the Gates Foundation, while continuing to stay the course with its own mission of improving “health for everyone by helping great ideas thrive.” The premise of that mission may seem a bit vague, but the work this funder supports is anything but.

We've been writing quite a bit about Wellcome lately, even though it's outside IP's normal wheelhouse of U.S. funders. The reason is simple: It's hard to avoid talking about a funder that gives so much annually and keeps either launching big initiatives of its own, or teaming up for ambitious collaborative efforts. 

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In 2015, for example, Wellcome Trust announced its plan to invest some $7.7 billion in innovative biomedical research around the world. And early this year, Wellcome, along with the Gates Foundation and the governments of India and Norway, established the Coalition of Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, or CEPI. The initial $460 million investment was led by CEPI founders as well as the governments of Germany and Japan.

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The exact amount each funder contributed to that total investment in CEPI has not been disclosed. But no matter how much Wellcome put up—which it’s safe to assume is a lot—it’s clearly not slowing down its funding train.  

Most recently, the foundation announced its new Innovation for Impact strategy, yet another big, sweeping effort. Wellcome Trust is committing £500 million, or around $625 million, to “help researchers and organizations around the world to transform great ideas, discoveries, and interventions into treatments, products, and cures for disease.”

With this five-year strategy, Wellcome is raising its giving for the all-important work of translating scientific discovery into real-world health gains. This is an area that interests many funders, who rightly worry about breakthroughs in the lab that don't reach patients in a timely fashion—instead getting waylaid in the so-called "valley of death" that separates research from application.

Wellcome is a veteran to such bridging work, having long been keen to close the gap between academic research and commercial viability. But in announcing this initiative, it stressed that commercialization isn't the only path to applying breakthroughs to the real world. There are others as well, and Wellcome feels it's important to work all angles. Given its massive investments in discovery science, the foundation has a particularly strong stake in ensuring that it has the best possible strategy for actually improving health outcomes—and sooner rather than later, too. 

What will this look like in practice? 

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Well, for one thing, it will mean some shifts in who Wellcome supports. The foundation says, "We will diversify our approach in pursuit of clinical impact—and will seek to work with clinician scientists committed to translation."

For another, Wellcome wants to ensure that its current portfolio of projects is adequately supported, and the trust will proactively seek out “opportunities for early impact.” The plan for the new strategy is to concentrate most of its energy on a small number of flexible, large-scale, and potentially high-impact activities, which it refers to as Wellcome Flagships.

Also, the new plan creates the Innovator Awards program. Beginning in February 2017, flagships are eligible to submit RFPs for this £500,000 (approximately $627,000 USD) grant. The areas of focus during this first round include innovative concepts and solutions in the fields of mental health, neurological disorders, and neglected tropical diseases. The trust notes that these are not exclusive areas of interest, and other funding priorities will be announced sometime down the road.

So just what does this funding behemoth hope to accomplish by the time its Innovation for Impact strategy comes to an end? Big things, naturally.

Wellcome Trust is hoping that by 2022, it will have supported scientific and health interventions that improved the lives of at least 5 million people—or at least 1 million people per year. Additionally, it’s hoping that the work it's backing under the new strategy will have a scientific impact for 10 to 20-plus years after it ends in 2022.

As we've said, Wellcome Trust has been an important foundation to watch over the past few years. Now, as Wellcome focuses new energy on speeding up its impact, it is likely to be even more important.