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The Wellcome Trust’s spinoff fund takes off

Two years ago, the Wellcome Trust biomedical charity announced a fund with ambitious plans to deliver medical breakthroughs within five to ten years. Wellcome Leap follows the model of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in the US and bills itself as a “Darpa for global health”.

A favourite among policy-makers, the Darpa model funds high-risk projects combining basic science and engineering in an attempt to achieve technological breakthroughs, something Wellcome Leap is adapting for the life sciences. The fund’s leadership is also drawn from Darpa, with former Darpa directors Regina Dugan and Ken Gabriel taking on the roles of chief executive and chief operating officer, respectively.

“Our principal focus is, by the end of a Leap programme, we should be able to do something we couldn’t do before the programme got started,” says Gabriel. “We believe Covid could inspire a health age, and Wellcome Leap will be the driver of breakthrough innovations for global health.”

The charity is backed by £250 million from the Wellcome Trust, and its first programme—which closed on 1 December—on human organs, physiology and engineering (Hope), had up to $50m (£37.5m) available. 

Programmes will be explicitly outcome-driven, and the Hope programme has two broad goals: doubling the predictive value of preclinical trials by recreating human immune responses in the lab and making significant advances towards creating artificial organs for transplants.

Team building

What sets the Darpa model apart from traditional grants is how integrated the funder is in the research process and in achieving the programme goals. Wellcome Leap hires programme directors to actively manage the research teams, bringing together players from different institutions for specific tasks.

Researchers are employed on contracts rather than receiving grants. “We’re not going to take that $50m and parcel it out in 50 pieces,” Gabriel explains. Rather, there will be a mix of people involved from different universities, companies and not-for-profit institutions, and the programme manager will make adjustments along the way.

“This is really about teamwork,” says Annie Moisan, programme director for Hope. “For researchers taking part in this Hope community, it’s about also having access to a brand new network,” she adds, pointing out that there is a strong incentive for researchers to join teams with the potential to make a significant impact.

Moisan says there is no set limit for the number of participants involved in a programme, but Wellcome Leap believes it will be in the range of 10 to 15 independent labs. “We will build the team we believe is the strongest to achieve the goals,” she explains. “For me, what’s important, and what we’re looking for, is best-in-class researchers in their area of expertise. It’s important, while applying, to keep in mind that this will be a collective effort, and that everyone should highlight their strengths and abilities, and how they can best contribute to the effort with creative ideas.”

Urgent times

Programmes will be open to researchers from any country, and there is a strong focus on solutions for global health. “We’re going to be international in scope and open to the breadth of the global community,” Gabriel says. Moisan agrees, adding that they have been advertising the Hope programme worldwide.

With only a 30-day window from announcement to deadline, the timeframe for applying to the Hope call was brief. Gabriel says this will be representative of Wellcome Leap programmes, and that they only ask for five-page descriptions of research ideas so researchers can apply “without having to invest a lot of precious time, resource and effort into a proposal”.

Gabriel points out that the 15-day timeframe for receiving feedback is also short, and that the funder will “match the call for urgency with our own sense of urgency. This is part of, I think, the ethos of Wellcome Leap: that we will move out smartly and there’s important work to be done—we need to get started as soon as we can.”

Creating change

The fund is expecting to launch two more programmes in the next six to 12 months. Once up to full speed, “we expect to have five to six programmes like Hope ongoing, each with a different focus or theme and capability objective”, says Gabriel.

He says the overall goal of Wellcome Leap programmes is to change fields; for this to happen, partners with more financial heft would be expected to step in to scale-up outputs.

Indeed, funding high-risk, high-reward projects that deliver breakthroughs is extremely expensive–Darpa’s budget is just over $3.5 billion for 2020 alone–and the seed funding from the Wellcome Trust is only meant to last five years. Gabriel says that if the programmes are successful, there could “perhaps be a greater number of programmes that may come via the Wellcome Trust and others. I think we expect the activities to grow, but I would say ‘stay tuned’ for how that happens.”  

This is an extract from an article in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service. To subscribe contact sales@researchresearch.com