Panel Paper: Accelerating Commercialization: The New Model of Strategic Foundations

Saturday, November 10, 2012 : 10:35 AM
Chesapeake (Sheraton Baltimore City Center Hotel)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Maryann Feldman, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Alexandra Graddy-Reed, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Accelerating Commercialization: The new model of strategic foundations 

Maryann Feldman and Alex Graddy-Reed

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Abstract:  A new strategic funding model utilized by private foundations and based on venture capital investing is radically changing the ways in academic research is conducted and commercialized. This category of strategic foundations prefers to invest rather than contribute, takes an active role in project management, and sets benchmarks and goals as a condition for additional funding.  Most strategic foundations have been organized around very specific research foci, specifically to find new drugs, therapeutics and vaccines for disease targets, or to provide ideas for neglected scientific problems such as water purification, agricultural sustainability and energy efficiency.  Examples include the Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF), “dedicated to finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease through an aggressively funded research agenda and to ensure the development of improved therapies,” and The Better World Trust, which uses venture philanthropy to fund training and research within the fields of sustainable agriculture, clean water, sanitation, and clean energy. The model of these foundations is predicated on an aggressive collaboration model that requires researchers to share their data, make all findings public immediately, and pressures universities to forego intellectual property (IP) rights and possible licensing revenues.  Dr. John Q. Trojanowski, researcher at the University of Pennsylvania reported in the New York times that, “It’s not science the way most of us have practiced it in our careers. But we all realized that we would never get biomarkers unless all of us parked our egos and intellectual-property noses outside the door and agreed that all of our data would be public immediately.”  In the pursuit of new commercialization models, strategic foundations contract with companies to bring discoveries to market.  The terms of these contracts once again impose strict performance standards and the first products funded by strategic foundations are now in clinical trials.  Despite the growing importance of these strategic funding models, little is known about their objectives, operations and impact of achieving results.

This paper lays the groundwork for understanding this emerging phenomenon.  We compile data on approximately 30 strategic foundations, their funded research projects and progress towards commercializing research results as the empirical basis for our analysis.  Interviews with strategic foundation program managers, university researchers and administrators, and company executives round out our investigation.  The paper concludes with a discussion of the relative merits of this new model, which acts as an intermediary to facilitate research commercialization.