More Risk: A Health Philanthropy Giant Disrupts Itself

photo:  Gorodenkoff/shutterstock

photo:  Gorodenkoff/shutterstock

With approximately $1.3 billion going out annually for scientific and health research in some 70 countries, the U.K.-based Wellcome Trust has long been one of philanthropy’s heavy hitters. In fact, it's the second biggest foundation in the world. So Wellcome's announcement that it had created a hefty new $332 million fund devoted to life sciences could seem puzzling. Isn't that like saying Apple plans to get into the computer business? 

The answer echoes what many funders say about philanthropy's need to stake out a position on the leading edge of research. Wellcome said its new Leap Fund was established to back "bold ideas that would fall outside the remit of conventional life sciences funding." This is a story we see all the time: philanthropic organizations stepping in to fill the funding void left by more risk-averse government research agencies and other major funders. 

What seems to be the case here is that Wellcome Trust has recognized that it has, in a sense, become the establishment. And it needed a new mechanism—the Leap fund—to support new and unconventional ideas and directions that could lead to scientific breakthroughs.  

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Wellcome says the Leap fund was inspired by the technology and venture capital industries, "taking on early-stage, high-risk ideas and funding at scale," and applying the model to health and life science philanthropy. Leap grantees might not even have a typical academic or research background. 

The Leap Fund will be a subsidiary of the Wellcome Trust, governed by an independent board, and led independently by a CEO with the autonomy to make funding decisions. It's searching for a CEO now, and is expected to begin grantmaking operations in late 2020. The $332 million allocated to the Leap fund will represent about 5 percent of Wellcome's total spending.

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We've been seeing and writing for years about this VC-style approach in philanthropy, as givers develop models of support that may enable them to foster innovative ideas from development clear through to market, so to speak, in every sphere from K-12 education to health research.

If such a model helps it maintain long term commitment, it could address what is for scientists one of the biggest shortcomings of the traditional grantmaking model: losing funding before they can finish their work. It's not easy to run a major research project or lab when you have no idea what your financial situation will be from year to year.