Wellcome Leap nabs $300M, ex-DARPA, Illumina execs to battle global health problems

The U.K.’s Wellcome Trust has spun out a new nonprofit with a hefty seed fund and some big names to battle against “the most pressing global health challenges of our time.”

It starts life with $300 million in funding with former U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Director Regina Dugan coming on board as its lead and former Illumina CEO Jay Flatley talking the chairman’s role.

Leap will undertake “bold, unconventional programs and fund them at scale," it says in a statement, and comes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which it says has and should change the way we think about how to tackle healthcare issues, and what should be prioritized.

Two years in the making, Leap will recruit program directors to build and work on programs that “identify opportunities and gaps,” and plug those gaps with science and engineering from “diverse disciplines.”

It will bring together and stump up cash for teams of scientists and engineers drawn from universities, nonprofits, and the commercial sector. “Operations at Leap will use accelerated timelines beginning with abstract and proposal evaluations that take weeks rather than months,” it said.

Leap is not, however, in the business of building permanent labs, and program directors will be appointed for “specific, discrete, time-bound projects,” and isn’t looking to take a cut of sales from any therapies it makes.  

CEO Dugan said: “The global pandemic is our generation’s Sputnik. It is calling on us to respond urgently—now—and also to create new capabilities for the future. We need new, risk-tolerant innovation organizations to drive health advances at the pace the world needs them, not only for the current crisis, but for the most pressing global health challenges of our time. I am excited to lead Leap.

“In the fight against COVID-19, scientific organizations are dispensing with old conventions and assumptions to stretch the limit of what’s possible. The world needs an entity dedicated to operating that way at all times,” added Flatley. “Leap will pursue the most challenging projects that would not otherwise be attempted or funded. The unique operating model provides the potential to make impactful, rapid advances on the future of health.”

The new organization will be independent from Wellcome and governed autonomously to “encourage speed, agility, and an appetite for risk-taking,” the new group said.