A Foundation Helps Scientists to Team Up and Explore New, Shared Ideas

 Rachael Arnott/shutterstock

 Rachael Arnott/shutterstock

One strategy with a lot of potential power in philanthropy’s toolbox is the ability to bring together a variety of people and institutions to collaborate in ways they might not otherwise. It’s an especially popular approach in science philanthropy—large, private research supporters like Simons and HHMI hold regular gatherings of scientists to explore certain themes, or otherwise try to facilitate unique collaborations. The hope is that such cross-pollination, especially across disciplines, will lead to new breakthroughs. 

One example of a funder that’s really embraced this approach is the Kavli Foundation. Encouraging collaboration among researchers has been a big focus for Kavli for some time now, but as the foundation has grown in recent years, it's looking to pull that lever even harder. 

Related: With More Cash and a New Home, a Foundation Plots the Future of its Science Funding

One relatively new example of this is the Kavli Dream Team Program, which goes beyond just convening, by offering funding to researchers, often at the intersection of two or more disciplines, to collaborate on a shared idea. Dream Team grant amounts vary, but they're relatively small pilot projects with a “sweet spot” of around $50,000. The program is still in its early stages (you won’t find it on Kavli’s website), but President Robert Conn tells IP that that they have high hopes for what it might accomplish. 

The Dream Team Program is a logical extension of Kavli’s series of regular convenings, which take many forms around multiple subjects. While the foundation is probably better known for the Kavli Prizes, or Kavli Institutes, these gatherings of researchers have also been fruitful. In fact, the foundation is credited in part with the development of the BRAIN Initiative via these meetings, coordinated at the time by former VP of science programs Miyoung Chun.

The foundation has been building out some of its programs since founder Fred Kavli passed in 2013, as more than 95 percent of his estate transferred to philanthropy. Its assets have about tripled since, and annual giving has more than doubled. One area that’s expanding is its convening efforts, and Kavli’s even building a brand new conference center connected to its headquarters in Los Angeles. 

While Dream Team grants don’t necessarily spring directly from these meetings, the program is a continuation of the idea that connecting researchers from different disciplines can yield exciting results. Another key principle behind it is that Kavli can throw some money at the kind of very early project that may not yield anything more easily than your average government agency could. As Conn describes it, this is a form of providing “free energy” to scientists.

One early example of a Dream Team grant focuses on neuroscience, a field that is becoming increasingly interdisciplinary. The grant backed a collaborative pilot project between Dr. Euisik Yoon, professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and biomedical engineering at University of Michigan, and Dr. György Buzsáki, professor of neuroscience at the New York University School of Medicine. Funds supported the development of a tiny new probe that can be used to measure brain activity. 

This is a unique program for Kavli, because the foundation doesn’t make project grants, for the most part. Most of its funding goes toward endowing research institutes and to the winners of the Kavli Prizes. It still doesn’t involve RFPs or an open call for applications, something we’d like to see in some form as this key science funder continues to evolve. But even in its early stages, it’s a compelling diversion from its main programs, and an embrace of risk that could yield a big bang for buck.