Three learnings about Focused Research Organizations
Updated: Aug 10
It has been roughly 4 years now since Adam Marblestone and I originally conceived of Focused Research Organizations (FROs), building on years of discussions and collaborations with a variety of colleagues at MIT and elsewhere as we struggled to create more scalable science projects. In the time since then, Adam and I worked to flesh out the idea in a series of white papers, and Adam founded Convergent Research with Anastasia Gamick to spin out FROs with the initial support of Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative of Eric and Wendy Schmidt. Due primarily to the exceptional efforts of Adam, Anastasia, and Tom Kalil, at least four FROs have been announced so far (with more in the works!), each funded with $20M-$50M by an ever expanding consortium of philanthropists.
In hindsight, I think it is worth highlighting three lessons from this experience:
Lesson 1: The time-limited nature of FROs was overstated; FROs should be free to grow if they succeed
One of the ideas we articulated initially when starting the FROs was that FROs should be funded for a limited time, e.g. 5 years, and should then spin down. Our goals were to make it possible to fund a specific project with a limited financial commitment; to challenges the founders of FROs to think creatively about next steps (i.e. not to take indefinite philanthropic funding for granted); and to allow the FROs to avoid the inevitable mission creep and complacency that so often plagues endowed institutions.
However, the time-limited aspect of the FROs has generated more concern than I had expected from potential FRO founders, who see the time limitation as a hard rule rather than as a default. We have often been asked questions like “who would join the FRO knowing that it will spin down in 5 years,” which are surprising in an ecosystem dominated by biotech companies that rarely have more than 18-24 months of runway. If we could do it again, I would have said that FROs should only receive 5 year initial commitments, and the burden should be on the founders to determine what comes next. Obviously, if an FRO is wildly successful and has clear justification for scale, nothing should stop it from going out and raising more philanthropic money, or from getting itself “acquired” by another nonprofit, or so on. But, like a startup, if the FRO produces nothing, it should not have any expectation of further funding. There are also many other post-FRO “transition” possibilities to achieve big impacts beyond the scope of the initial philanthropic funding, like spinning off for-profits in specific applied verticals that leverage aspects of the technology or team (without compromising the core open science missions), forming long-lived partnerships or consortia with other institutions, and so on. As for the employees, FRO founders should tell them the same thing startup founders tell them: the FRO is funded for a specific period of time, and if they want it to continue past its expiry date, they should make sure it does a good job and generates good science! Many scientists are fine with this bargain. Indeed, joining an FRO is lower risk than joining a startup, because the lack of equity is offset by higher cash compensation.
Lesson 2: New structures for science do actually enable new kinds of science.
The second lesson is that new ideas about how we organize science can actually enable people to think differently about the science they want to do. I speak regularly to scientists now who are thinking in a way they never did before about what they could do if they scaled up their research or if they moved outside of academia. In that sense, I think the value of the FRO concept is primarily that it gives credibility, structure, and a name to a particular class of organizations which was previously nameless. FRO-like organizations existed before, but by calling them out specifically, the FROs have enabled many scientists to think bigger. To be clear: the FROs as a concept or as a “metascience experiment” will always be less important than the science they enable. But scientists in academia certainly think about their science from the lens of what they need to do in order to succeed in academia, and by providing scientists with an alternative model for success, we can enable them to think about alternative approaches to their science.
Lesson 3: There are a lot of other opportunities to be explored in the space of non-academic, non-profit science.
We pitched FROs originally as a solution for a specific gap in the scientific ecosystem. There are some scientific problems that cannot be done for profit, but that are too large or require too much coordination for academic labs. As a result, because most non-profit research takes place in academia, there is no natural home for those research projects. Academia is fundamentally an educational institution, and most academic research is done by trainees. It is important for their training that each individual trainee (including postdocs) be given the opportunity to lead and claim individual credit for projects, and hence it is difficult in academia to build large coordinated teams.
In articulating this, however, I now think that we missed a broader point about talent. Prior to the FROs, most people thought of non-profit scientific research as being synonymous with academia, in which research is done primarily by trainees. We did not have a systematic way to talk about non-profit fundamental research conducted by professional, (i.e., already-trained), scientists and engineers. We take for granted that for-profit science projects are done by fully-trained, professional scientists in startups or large corporations, and yet we do not have any way for fully-trained, professional scientists (in biology at least) to do basic science. The closest we get is for those fully-trained scientists to become academics, but academics are loaded down with other responsibilities like teaching, grant writing, etc. FROs are simply non-profit startups for science, and they provide a mechanism by which we can assemble a team of fully-trained scientists to work together on a research project. Society stands to benefit tremendously from creating new pathways for professional researchers to work on public research, and there are many opportunities to explore other structures in this space.
Non-academic, non-profit research has a tremendous amount to contribute to our scientific ecosystem, and Adam, Anastasia, and Tom have done an amazing job spearheading this revolution in our scientific ecosystem. Governments need to pay attention: the UK government has already started, and if the US wants to maintain its leadership position in the innovation ecosystem, it is time for it to pay attention also. The easier we make it for scientists to pursue big ideas for the public good, the better the returns will be for society as a whole.