Must Read Voices of Impact March 16, 2023

How Schmidt Futures is Innovating Philanthropic Funding for Scientific Advancement (Part 2)

An Interview with Tom Kalil, Chief Innovation Officer at Schmidt Futures, on innovating philanthropic funding for scientific advancement (Part 2)

Last month, we published the first of a two-part interview with Tom Kalil, covering his insights into potential innovations in education and workforce development. In Part II of our conversation, Tom dives into a novel tool Schmidt Futures is utilizing to advance scientific research, Focused Research Organizations.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Focused Research Organizations are a new funding mechanism for transformational science

Tyton Partners (TP):
I want to talk about an initiative that started at Schmidt Futures called Convergent Research, which is a Focused Research Organization. Can you speak more to what FRO’s are and what kinds of problems they can solve?

Tom Kalil (TK):
This was an idea that two early career scientists had, Sam Rodriguez and Adam Marblestone. They observed there was a class of scientific and technical challenges you could not address as a venture-backed startup because the path to profitability was too long, and also difficult to address in an academic setting because of the level of team science needed and the collaboration between scientists and professional engineers. What they proposed was to create a new mechanism for funding, organizing, and incentivizing research, which they call a Focused Research Organization. These are time-bounded research nonprofits. They have a CEO and the unity of purpose of a well-run startup, with goals they are trying to achieve in a fixed period of time (maybe five years). And because they’re philanthropically funded, they can support projects that wouldn’t be attractive from a venture capitalist’s point of view.

Now, we ask the exciting question, “What FROs, if they existed, could be transformational in addressing key bottlenecks to scientific and technical progress?” This question has been very generative. That’s because researchers weren’t asking themselves, “What would I do if I were the CEO of a $50-million research nonprofit?” This is because it seemed like a very implausible scenario in the same way that you wouldn’t take three months of your life to say, “If I won the lottery, exactly what would I do with the money?”

What I’m excited about is that researchers are generating a growing number of ideas. And philanthropists like this model because it’s not an open-ended commitment to support something until the end of time. They’re not saying, “Endow this research institute forever.” Instead, they’re saying, “If this project is successful, we’ll be able to deliver on the following scientific and technical advance and here’s why that’s important.”

There are two of these commitments running now. The first is working on mapping the brain, and the second is dramatically increasing our ability to take advantage of the biodiversity that Mother Nature has given us. On the one hand, there are gazillions of different microbes and yet, researchers almost exclusively use two: E. coli (Escherichia coli) and yeast. This is individually rational from the perspective of any one researcher because it allows them to get started right away, but it’s collectively irrational because there are these microbes that have amazing superpowers and we have no idea how to use them in an industrial or academic setting.

The time-boundedness of FROs makes them attractive to philanthropists

I want to hone in on this idea of the time-boundedness of it. You’re setting a moonshot and it needs to happen in an incredibly constrained amount of time; but once it’s done, it’s out in the world. It’s like the Human Genome Project on an accelerated timeline: it’s funded philanthropically, and as soon as it’s done, everybody has access to it. Those types of things can generate new work, new research, new companies, and more.

It could lead to spin-offs. It could lead to a very large data set being created and put in the public domain. It could lead to a new set of tools. It could stimulate an even larger project. Our hope is that the project focused on brain mapping will inspire and motivate an even larger project that takes those tools and begins to work on connectomes, starting with maybe mice, but then ultimately, working up to the human brain.

I imagine if you were to pick something in education, it would be focused on the learning sciences? Or certain cognitive processes? Or solving moonshot ideas around how we take greater advantage of people’s capacity to learn?

Absolutely. And this is not the right model for every research project. It tends to work best if you don’t need massive conceptual advances to solve the problem. If I had a team of 20-30 people working for five years and doing nothing else, could they achieve that goal? As opposed to saying, “Here’s this problem, we have no idea of how to solve it.” That’s more, “Let’s support 1,000 people and 100 different academic labs and hope that someone comes up with that sort of brilliant flash of insight.”

The exciting thing is people are interested in applying the scientific method to how we fund, organize, and incentivize research. As opposed to saying, “The existing models are all that we have,” we use a peer review mechanism to provide small grants to professors at universities to fund their graduate students and postdocs. No one is suggesting we get rid of that model, because for a lot of problems, it’s the right model. What people are saying is that we prematurely standardized on a very small number of mechanisms for how to fund, organize, and incentivize research and innovation. The same way that the XPRIZE Foundation said, “Why don’t we use incentive prizes?” We have this vast landscape of institutional possibilities which we’ve just begun to explore and that’s the sort of big-picture idea that I’m excited about. And Focused Research Organizations is a compelling instance of that idea.