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THE BLACK HOLE

Tackling the biggest gaps in translational research funding

A guide to changing the institutional thinking of translational research programs.

By JONATHAN THON | JAN 11 2018

In a previous post I highlighted a comprehensive list of recommendations for how to improve federally-supported translational research programs. In this series of posts I elaborate on these recommendations in the hope that they may help guide institutional thinking on translational research funding.

Key points:

  • Reduce time from grant submission to award
  • Allow greater flexibility in project spending
  • Subsidize private “start-up” lab space outside the university through direct funding to company/PI

The time between grant submission and funding is too long

Translational research programs in the process of being spun out of academic research labs are generally operating on shoe-string budgets with little and sometimes no independent funding. Although appropriate time must be budgeted for administrative and scientific review of a grant application to proceed, if this period is too lengthy, successful applicants risk being unable to retain their team, pay their rent, and subsequently lose investor confidence while they wait. Unsuccessful candidates risk not knowing to direct their resources to other funding vehicles to avoid this outcome. The typical review process often takes 10 -12 months from grant submission to funding.

While it would certainly be cheaper and less risky to await grant confirmation and disbursement to assemble the team and lab space, the grants typically required these to be identified in advance. As an example, we recently received notification that our grant was approved for funding one year after submission, and will still require several more months of negotiation and administrative processing before the funds are ultimately released. In contrast to larger academic institutions and private companies that are able to offset these delays by making up the difference until funds are released, this is not possible to do at the earliest stages when there is no significant cash in the bank. Yes, entrepreneurs will find ways of being resourceful, but there are limits to what is possible, and team members ultimately need to put food on their tables. We all acknowledge that we are taking a substantial risk in starting or joining a startup, but the reality is that low academic salaries mean most of us don’t have the reserves to float ourselves or our families for more than three months (if at all) without taking on a paying job. Most companies fail at this stage.

Spending needs to be flexible

Neither the research nor the field at large are standing still. While science generally moves slowly, it does not move THAT slowly, and after the three-month mark we should expect that research plans will change, studies originally proposed will have been initiated and potentially completed by either the proposing team, or equally likely, their competitors. The field’s understanding of the problem may have also changed, and experiments initially proposed may no longer make as much sense as they once did. The longer the time interval between grant submission and award, the more likely these issues are to begin to appear, and past the nine month mark it should be expected that the original proposal will no longer make as much sense as it did on submission. This should not disqualify the grant; instead, flexibility in project spending must be built in.

This is particularly true for translational research programs that are at the earliest stages, balancing competing priorities like intellectual property management, licensing agreements, recruitment, etc. Because everything else is moving incredibly fast for these ventures, startups are best supported by flexible project grants that are funding the end-goal, not the specific path to get there. Grant applications should require the team to describe how they intend to achieve the project goals of the grant, and this plan should be critically reviewed for feasibility. But it should also be noted that at this stage of company creation the best plans are no more than lines in the sand and should be expected to shift (sometimes greatly). The longer the time from grant submission to funding, the more unlikely that the original plan proposed will reflect the reality of the day.

Support private, non-university lab space to help the company “spin out”

Lastly, translational research programs need help transitioning from academic institutions (that are generally tasked with creating new knowledge and education), into private companies (that are better structured to transform these discoveries into commercial products). Grants should therefore prioritize helping to move an academic program outside of the university through direct funding of the principal investigator or commercial vehicle being creating to translate this work, and should not be granted to the university.

Companies need to retain their intellectual property to keep a competitive commercial advantage. Universities, by comparison, are intended to be centers of knowledge creation and should, in turn, be charged with disseminating knowledge, not hoarding it. Funding laboratory space outside the university ensures that new discoveries generated under the project grant are not made using university resources and infrastructure, such that the institution cannot lay claim to these inventions, and incentivizes the principal investigators to remain a part of the venture (eg., as consultants or new company hires). Where universities are willing/able to create incubators for their faculty and students, intellectual property rules should allow for the new technology to belong entirely to the principal investigator or the commercial vehicle created to translate this project (and not the academic institution). The easiest way to separate university claims to new technology being generated under funded translational programs is for the grant to subsidize lab space for the new company within existing local incubators – this will be discussed in more detail in a future post.

ABOUT JONATHAN THON
Jonathan Thon
Dr. Thon is an assistant professor in the hematology division at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Harvard Medical School in Boston.
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