It sometimes seems as though the start-ups and growing companies developing the latest technology in the world are awash with cash. SoftBank’s $100 billion Vision Fund has been joined by the new $15 billion China New Era Technology Fund put together by China Merchants Group. Both back promising science and technology companies – often to the hilt. The Vision Fund is renowned for giving founders up to ten times the funding they ask for. Some of the technology funded already has a proven business model but a lot of the investments are ‘moon shots’ – high risk punts it’s accepted from the outset may or may not come off.
Now the UK is, albeit on a more modest level, getting in on the act. The Wellcome Trust, a biotech and medicine research charity based in London thought to be the UK’s wealthiest foundation, is in the process of setting up its own £250 million fund to back biotech ‘moon shots’. Wellcome has a commercial life sciences and biotech funding programme set up in 2012. Syncona, as it is called, invests in innovative biotech research. However, Syncona’s commercial funding model requires a strong chance of success of the investments it makes. The new £250 million Leap Fund will, however, take a different approach. It will make ‘big bets’ on ‘bold ideas’ from universities and businesses that would be considered too high risk to be eligible for Syncona funding.
At the announcement of the Leap Fund, Wellcome director Jeremy Farrar explained the strategy behind the foundation’s new venture:
“Blue-skies, curiosity-driven research is the bedrock of every major scientific and technological breakthrough of the past 100 years. But many scientists have ambitious, potentially transformational ideas that don’t fit the standard funding model. They require unconventional and disruptive thinking, backed by funders with the scale and risk appetite to make big bets on something they know may not succeed, but would be transformational if it did.”
While the Leap Fund will not entirely ignore the prospect of profits resulting from the investments it makes, it is only one of the metrics upon which funding candidates will be assessed on. Considered more important will be if the research that will be funded would constitute a ‘leap forward’ in biotech if successful. The foundation will be happy if breakthroughs are then picked up by others for commercial development.
Examples given of the kind of biotech and scientific breakthroughs the Leap Fund hopes to finance are nanopore genome sequencing which allows scientists to read the biochemical script, or letters, encoded in DNA and crypto-electron microscopy, a development that means scientists can now view individual atoms in biological molecules.
These breakthroughs have had a huge impact on the pace of contemporary biotech research but took longer to be confirmed due to the arduous process of the researchers behind them securing funding in stages. Wellcome hope the Leap Fund will mean other comparable leaps forward can be achieved “at a vastly accelerated timescale”.