‘Focused Research Organizations’ aim to provide useful information to the scientific community in areas that currently aren’t being served by academia or business.
When it comes to scientific research, bigger can often be better. A lot of what we know about the world today is thanks to huge, multi-billion dollar projects that involved the work of thousands of scientists. Think the Human Genome Project, or the Large Hadron Collider or the Apollo Program: These were large-scale, focused projects with singular goals in mind, yielding tons of scientific progress on the road to achieving them.
Not every scientific problem needs to be solved on this scale, of course. But if you look around the landscape, you don’t see many of these problems being tackled at all. Commercial organizations are generally geared towards the application of scientific discovery with an end goal of making projects for market. University labs are very good at making basic discoveries, but teams there are often too small to do larger, publicly-oriented projects on any type of scale.
Conceptually, though, one can imagine mini-versions of the Human Genome Project oriented towards smaller, but still worthwhile projects that might still require dozens of people to help accomplish. And it’s exactly these types of organizations that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt is trying to build with his non-profit, Convergent Research. His goal, he told Forbes in an email, is to “unlock major bottlenecks holding back the progress of an entire research field.”
On Wednesday, Schmidt and Citadel founder and CEO Ken Griffin announced they were committing $50 million to Convergent Research, which Schmidt spun out from his non-profit Schmidt Futures in fall 2021.
“We should be using every tool at our disposal to advance breakthrough discoveries,” Griffin told Forbes in an email. “And new research models can bring together the right teams and resources to drive progress in science and medicine that will impact lives at scale.”
The small, non-profit research groups, which Convergent calls “focused research organizations” (FROs), aim to “support an ecosystem of small-to-mid scale projects that fall between the cracks of what startups, academia and other organizations do,” Convergent’s current CEO Adam Marblestone and several of his colleagues wrote in a commentary in Nature in January 2022.
“FROs take on problems that might require a greater level of team science or systems engineering than is possible in an academic setting,” Schmidt said. “Or they might aim at producing public goods that venture capital could not profit from.”
Right now Convergent has two FROs up and running: E11 Bio, which is aimed at brain-circuit mapping for neuroscience; and Cultivarium, which aims to build ways to work with a wide variety of microorganisms for synthetic biology applications that it plans to open source to the scientific community.
But these are just the beginning. “Convergent Research has received over 300 early-stage ideas for FROs from the scientific community,” adds Schmidt.
Schmidt also told Forbes that he’s been heavily involved in the FROs themselves, interviewing potential founding teams and determining technical challenges, goals and milestones. All of the Convergent-founded FROs have a “go/no-go” milestone at the two-year mark to ensure that their research is making progress, Schmidt added.
With the new influx of money, Convergent will be starting up two new FROs. The first, EvE Bio, aims to produce a publicly available dataset of all known interactions between small-molecule drugs and drug targets. The organization will be creating its own data, says Schmidt, that will “couple robotics with state-of-the-art biochemistry” to generate information about how thousands of different FDA-approved drugs interact with different high-impact targets in human cells. This type of data could be used for drug repurposing or to develop effective drugs with fewer side effects.
The second new FRO is the Parallel2 Technology Institute (PTI), which aims to develop a suite of tools that can improve the current technology used to enable protein analysis. Its goal is to drive down costs and efficiency in order to create large datasets of proteins that are involved in diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
“This approach was prototyped at Northeastern University, in the laboratory of Nikolai Slavov,” says Schmidt, adding that Slavov and his colleagues will be involved in founding PTI. In the initial work, researchers uncovered the possibility of mapping proteins at the level of individual cells. Scaling that approach up could open new possibilities for treating some of the most difficult chronic diseases.
“We all aspire to live longer, healthier lives,” adds Griffin. “And it is my hope that accelerating the scientific progress of these organizations will lead to more scalable and viable treatments for chronic diseases.”
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