Its the right idea….almost

Peter Thiel who invented PayPal and presciently invested in Facebook has announced that he is giving money though a scheme called ‘Breakout Labs’ where independent researchers and start-up companies will be funded philanthropically through a grant-proposal process and that any royalties recovered from these successful folk will be reinvested in new sci-ventures.

I like the model, I especially like the part where royalties pay for more research. This is good, its self contained, non-for-profit (sort of) and gives back to the hand that feeds it, generating more capital for future investment. Breakout Labs also seem to realize (I hope) that they will loose some of that money. I wrote a blog about how science needs a Saatchi a while back which I think is applicable. What is not to love? It should be possible, perhaps to fund scientific research with philanthropic funds. Why not? Philanthropy pays for all sorts of good things. Look at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation specifically and more generally about this topic, Michael Green and Matthew Bishop at their blog (and book) Philanthrocapitalism.

The Breakout Lab start-up funding for early-stage tech companies is also a good idea. They are accepting applications for grant funds between $50,000 and $350,000, so an early tech company might really forge ahead with this level of funding, it just might be the break they need to get off the ground. Great!

But their plan for independent scientific research? Not so great. Why, because Breakout labs stipulates they cannot be based at any big institution, have corporate funding or be at a University. So where else are ‘independent researchers’? In their garage. Working on perpetual motion machines. Despite their claim that they don’t want to support ‘hobbyist hackers’ but rather independent scientists with ideas that will change the world; I don’t think that is going to happen.

First off the funding available is $50,000 to $350,000. That is not enough to build a lab from scratch. Part of what a University offers is infrastructure, someone that pays the bills, gives you access to journals (OK don’t start on the open access thing that is another issue), makes sure the coolant for say a glove box works properly, and keeps the lights on. A particular University (or company) may not do this well, but they do do it.

They also say these grants will be for ‘bootstrap data’ fill the gap funding before these independent researchers can apply for an NIH grant or something similar. So are you going to do drug research in your basement? On $350K to build that lab, keep the electricity paid to use those incubators, buy your chemicals – if you are ‘independent’ you have to be certified to handle and dispose of chemicals, for instance, who is going to pay for that? Good luck.

While I will admit that for some things this might work, say engineering something or developing a new business – its sort of dumb for basic science research. It would be smarter to work a deal with Universities for support of new and early stage researchers, where maybe companies like Thiel’s can claim the IP or some such. Its smarter to work with what you got.

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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2 Responses to Its the right idea….almost

  1. Grant says:

    I understand your skepticism, but perhaps the intention was to complement the kind of funding that already exists. (Just trying to think positively about it.)

    These awards might suit me, for what it’s worth. I work as an independent computational biologist, mostly consulting to research groups & organisations. Income aside, I’d prefer to be doing research, or working closer with research groups, as much of what I’m asked to do doesn’t really make the best use of my skills and interests (IMHO, of course).

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