Wellcome creates £250M fund to make big, risky bets

The atrium of the Wellcome Trust's headquarters (Matt From London/CC BY 2.0)

The Wellcome Trust has created a £250 million ($331 million) nonprofit fund to bankroll high-risk, high-reward research. Wellcome sees the fund accelerating the progress of early-stage projects that may struggle to secure traditional grants or venture investments.

Nonprofit Wellcome already puts £900 million a year into research through its primary fund and set up profit-driven investor Syncona to support later-stage, commercially attractive opportunities. The new investment vehicle, Leap Fund, fills a different niche by making money available to researchers who, for different reasons, may get turned down by the primary fund or Syncona. 

“Many scientists have ambitious, potentially transformational ideas that don’t fit the standard funding model,” Jeremy Farrar, Wellcome director, told the Financial Times. “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.”


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Farrar thinks Wellcome can be such a funder and, in doing so, enable advances of the magnitude of cryo-electron microscopy and nanopore genome sequencing to advance to market faster. 

Some of these initiatives could make profits for the fund, which will look to bring businesses on board to handle commercialization once projects reach maturity. But the profitability of the fund will be just one of the metrics Wellcome uses to measure success. Wellcome wants Leap Fund to make a big impact on healthcare and life sciences, not just turn a profit.

The size and focus of the fund make it something of an outlier. In the U.S., many long-shot projects get backing from U.S. defense unit DARPA. Leap Fund lacks the financial might of DARPA but is free from its military-skewed priorities. In the U.K., there is no obvious analogue to Leap Fund.

Wellcome expects to have a CEO in place to run the fund within a few months and is putting a board together to govern the initiative.

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