Focused Research Organisations

In my quest to understand what unlocks success for a country (or institution), I have been reading up several biographies and ideas to identify the “winning streak”. Some ideas come from unexpected sources. This one published in Nature has an interesting proposition.

Unblock research bottlenecks with non-profit start-ups

A type of non-profit start-up could be a better way to support projects that enable research. These would have full-time scientists, engineers and executives, and total funding of about US$20 million to $100 million that would last around 5 years — longer than most grants or venture-capital funding rounds allow. And they would be set up to pursue predefined milestones, such as improving the resolution of a measurement system by tenfold, or gathering a pre-specified amount of data. We call them focused research organizations (FROs).

These are niche ideas (including “vertically integrated chains) to address the growing chasm of the public funded academia but instead focus on specific problems. The authors further opine:

Our goal is to create a model to support an ecosystem of small- to mid-scale projects that fall between the cracks of what start-ups, academia and other organizations do. Start-up companies have a standard playbook involving business agreements and pitch meetings. Academic funding has standard requirements such as CVs and project proposals. We hope to develop a similar playbook as we monitor our FROs. This will make future launches easier.

Perhaps semi-permanent teams of project managers and administrators can be matched with scientific staff from the start, essentially serving as hosts for a focused scientific leadership team. Other questions involve career progression, including what will lure talent away from academia or the potential financial returns of a start-up, and how to enable strong, post-FRO career options for all staff.

These “FRO’s” model will require a validation. This is an interesting proposal, but I feel that if vertical integration is all that’s required, anyone with a bigger budget will set it up leading to a “rat-race”; especially in the esoteric fields like “ageing”. Unless the spin off benefits from fundamental research spill over to the public (or academia), it will be difficult to find specific justification. Similarly, ideas can be copied freely, but it takes efforts to execute them towards specific end-goals. Brain mapping, as discussed in the link, can offer newer juicy targets for pharmaceutical companies who are too big and risk averse to invest in new scalable ideas. Their “growth” has been through acquisitions, primarily by derisking research from marketing. This is a generic statement, but medicine is primarily empirical. We understand little about disease states. Still.

A vertically integrated FRO with specific elements of collaboration, inclusive of cross-domain specialists, will bring in better outcomes. It means individuals who can see the broader trends, but ability to zoom into details. Research can’t be divorced from failure, so instead of focusing on “research advisory councils”, we need practical applications from the outset to make it worthwhile. As mentioned, a clear outline for professional career growth as well. So instead of rigid gatekeeping in academia, there could be a free flow of individuals and ideas (including expertise) to have specific inputs and move the project forward.

Do read this up. Its open access (luckily!) and has interesting proposals.

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