Paths Through the Funding Labyrinth
Connor Brenna, MD
An expert panel explained the breadth of research funding opportunities for early-career scholars in the IARS, AUA, SOCCA, and eSAS 2023 Scholars’ Program session, “Paths to Funding, Alternative and Traditional” on Saturday, April 15. Together, these speakers provided a high-level overview of paths to funding from industry, foundational, and federal sources. Moderated by Kathyrn Rosenblatt, MD, MHS, the panel featured M. Christine Stock, MD, Dolores Njoku, MD, and Luci Roberts, PhD.
In her presentation, “Show Me The Money: The Alternative Pathway,” Dr. Stock, Managing Director, Medical Affairs at Health2047, Inc., reviewed ways to obtain academic resources from commercial partners. “Industry,” which refers broadly to nonacademic businesses selling products to, and sharing an interest in, healthcare, traditionally provides support for drug discovery, the investigation of industry products, and the study of investigator’s own products. Dr. Stock’s talk focused on the latter, and gave advice for the critical elements academics need to commercialize their own research: a great idea, a sound theoretical basis, and a minimum viable product. Other attractive items included a published proof-of-concept, patented intellectual property, or revenue from the sale of a mature product. One of the challenges Dr. Stock identified in industry funding is that you are always fundraising: commercialization begins with “seed funding” ranging from $250,000-3,000,000 raised from federal, philanthropic, or other sources. This supports incorporation, product validation/iteration, market share identification, and the creation of financial and business plans, allowing a product to go to market and compete for “Second Round” funding. At this next stage, funding is usually sourced from venture capital (in the range of $5-20 million) and tied to clear milestones and a timeline for bringing the product to market, which must be met to obtain further investment later. Dr. Stock advised that commercialization endeavors begin with the “exit” in mind: most attempts (approximately 90%) end in liquidation when a company runs out of money before becoming profitable. Some ideas will result in an initial public offering (IPO) to compete with existing industry, but more often successful ventures end in either merger or (common for smaller start-ups) acquisition of a team, product, or some part of the idea/technology. In the healthcare space, timelines to merger or acquisition average 5-10 years. Product commercialization is therefore a long-term investment with potential for both profit and pitfalls.
In the second talk, “Foundation Grants,” Dr. Dolores Njoku, Wise Professor and Vice Chair of Anesthesiology and Chief of Pediatric Anesthesiology at Washington University in St. Louis and Anesthesiologist-in-Chief at St. Louis Children’s Hospital, described funding support available through foundations: nonprofit organizations or public/private charitable trusts which provide grants to institutions or individuals. For example, “Pre-K” grants are small, focused, early-career research grants that can be critical for researchers who will seek independent funding later in their career. There are a wide array of foundation grants available, and Dr. Njoku overviewed a selection offered by The Foundation for Anesthesia Education and Research (FAER), Anesthesia Patient Safety Foundation (APSF)-FAER, the International Anesthesia Research Society (IARS), and the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine (ASRA Pain Medicine).
Every researcher will have their own path and timelines with respect to early-career funding, and not everyone will (or necessarily needs to) receive foundation funding. However, evidence from the article, “Academic Anesthesiology Career Development: A Mixed-Methods Evaluation of the Role of Foundation for Anesthesiology Education and Research Funding,” demonstrates that even just applying to these grants is associated with later academic success, whether or not the applicant’s foundation grant is successful. Important steps include cultivating a supportive mentorship team, developing a clear plan/vision, and applying broadly. As many foundation grants follow similar timelines, one application can easily be adapted to others.
Finally, in “Progressing through the NIH Alphabet Soup,” Dr. Luci Roberts, Program Director in the Behavioral and Systems Neuroscience Branch in the Division of Neuroscience at the National Institute on Aging (NIA) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), spoke on Federal funding opportunities (e.g., K and R awards) available to researchers. The NIH is the world’s largest public funder of biomedical research, comprising 27 distinct institutes and centers which each maintain their own mission, priorities, and budget. Of these 27, anesthesia research typically aligns with four: the National Health, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), NIA, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), and National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS). Potential applicants can explore these institutes and their unique opportunities on grants.nih.gov, which also offers accessible resources and the NIH Guide to finding appropriate grants. NIH Institutes will announce targeted and parent notices of funding opportunities (NOFOs) which are specific to a topic or career stage or open to researcher proposal, respectively. Dr. Roberts provided examples from her own institute, the NIA, which focuses on aging and healthcare for older adults. These included the Stephen I. Katz Early-Stage Investigator Research Project Grant, the Grants for Early Medical/Surgical Specialists’ Transition to Aging Research (GEMSSTAR) Grant, the K76: Paul B. Beeson Emerging Leaders Career Development Award in Aging, and the Butler-Williams Scholars Program. Early-career researchers can set themselves up for success in Federal competitions by building networks, valuing “casual” professional acquaintance, and, because eligibility, application requirements, amounts, and allotments of protected research time vary by grant, carefully reviewing each opportunity to prepare a strong proposal.
Research and funding have a complex, interdependent relationship. Without funding, many researchers would not have the resources for equipment, supplies, and personnel support necessary to pursue their work. Funding can be a critical facilitator of collaboration with researchers outside of one’s own institution or discipline, and the concrete objectives and milestones to which it is often tied can keep scientific pursuits on track. However, the competition for funding is fierce, and, depending on its source, can also be underwritten by political motivations or commercial influence which bias what work is supported or threaten its objectivity. Above all, a common sentiment among early-career academics is that the patchwork landscape of funding opportunities can feel impossible to navigate. Thankfully, this panel illuminated the many starting points that a researcher’s path might take to acquire the funding to sustain their work.