The Emergence of Private Foundations in Science

May 13, 2012 | Posted by Piper in Outsourcing Trends |

The majority of scientific funding in the United States has traditionally come from government agencies and funding bodies.  Organizations such as the NIH, NSF, DOE, and DOD have provided a bulk of the funding, and continue to provide support for universities and lab groups.

And yet, much of government funding comes with red tape attached that is difficult for lab groups to control. Agencies often require a body of preliminary results before funding, and other times require a project to have translational applications beyond basic science. Only a select set of science verticals and projects even have funding available, given the incentive structures in government to fund popular areas or projects with immediate impact. And with federal budget cuts straining available scientific resources, the problem is only compounded.

It is in this culture that private foundations have taken up some of the slack and are increasingly funding basic science.  Projects without preliminary results, or otherwise considered high risk, are now finding a place amidst a growing volume of private foundations.  Profiled below are four such foundations: the Keck Foundation, Thiel Foundation, Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement, and The Kavli Foundation.

The Keck Foundation

The W. M. Keck Foundation’s mission is to fund basic research projects, rather than applied or translational.

William Keck was an inventor and a risk-taker and the foundation mimics his ethos by funding high-risk, high-impact projects that are difficult to fund using traditional resources. Their large grants support a diverse group of junior as well as senior investigators, and look to fund technology that can “save lives, [and] provide innovative solutions” with long-term impact.

The Keck Foundation in turn is able to fund basic science projects that traditionally had less federal funding available to them.  Combined with their focus on long-term impact projects, the Foundation provides a good resource for those lab groups finding difficulty in sourcing funds through traditional channels.

For more information on the Keck Foundation, visit: http://www.wmkeck.org/about-us.html

The Thiel Foundation

In 2011, the Thiel Foundation launched Breakout Labs, a funding source for for-profit start-up ideas in the open marketplace.

Founder Peter Thiel started the Foundation under the belief that the pace of technology has slowed, and not enough science-based or high-risk companies are getting funded. Early-stage funding for science-based companies are generally limited, with academic grants limiting IP rights of inventors, and federal funding sources such as Small Business Research Innovation (SBIR) grants often requiring preliminary results before money can even be granted.

Breakout Labs in turn provides funding to projects that are at the idea or pre-results stage. Up to $350,000 in funding is available per project, with a focus on technologies in the earliest of stages.  Funding is provided on a revolving basis, with the first round recently announced in April 2012.  This program in turn helps facilitate the earliest stages of scientific commercialization, where there are often only angel investors or family members funding, and protect the young company from intellectual property restrictions associated with academic grants.

For more info on the Thiel Foundations’ Breakout Labs, visit: https://www.breakoutlabs.org/about-us.html

Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement

The Research Corporation for Scientific Advancement (RCSA) focuses on funding early career faculty, as well as innovative ideas in transformative research.

The RCSA’s funding goals focus on scientists and topics that historically struggle for enough government funding.  The Cottrell Scholar Awards, for instance, fund research at Ph.D. granting institutions to support faculty members both in research and education concepts. The Cottrell College Science Awards also support basic research at primarily undergraduate institutions. A newer program, Scialog, has been launched to accelerate the work of transformative science, involving 26 universities to use research, dialog, and community building to solve scientific problems.

The Foundation recently celebrated its 100th anniversary this year, and has funded over 15,000 researchers during that time, including 40 Nobel Laureates.

For more info on the RCSA, visit: http://www.rescorp.org/about-rcsa

The Kavli Foundation

The Kavli Foundation focuses on funding basic research fields that often fall within gaps of federal funding opportunities.

The Foundation’s research funding is primarily channeled through its 16 Kavli Institutes, organizations studying basic research in astrophysics, theoretical physics, neuroscience, and nanoscience. Another program, the Kavli Prize, recognizes outstanding scientific research in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience. The prize promotes public understanding of the scientist’s accomplishments (anyone can nominate prize winners) and prizes are for $1 million each.

For more info on the Kavli Foundation, visit: http://www.kavlifoundation.org/about-foundation

 

About the author

Piper J. Klemm (Twitter: @piperjklemm) is a Ph.D. Candidate in Chemistry at University of California, Berkeley, studying the next generation of MRI contrast agents in the laboratory of Professor Kenneth N. Raymond. She is also the National Social Media Coordinator for Iota Sigma Pi (the women’s honors society in chemistry), an Associate Language Editor for Molecular Imprinting (a Versita open-access journal), as well as being part of the Science Exchange Advocate program. She received her B.S. with Honors in Chemistry from Trinity College (Hartford, CT).

 

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