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Philanthropy, Seed Grants and Small Donations ... It's All About Leverage

CCH Newsletter - Summer 2011

By Dennis Hughes, M.D., Ph.D.

The current funding environment is really tough for researchers, especially junior scientists and those who are trying to get new ideas started. With the current political climate in Washington, D.C., and recent budget battles, it seems unlikely that it will get easier to acquire grants for new ideas in the near future. That’s why the generosity of philanthropic donors is so vital.

How grant applications work

When scientists apply for a grant, the reviewers want to understand why the scientist thinks this project is a good idea, what evidence there is that the project will show something important, and how confident they should be that the experiments the scientist proposes will work.

All of these needs amount to one huge requirement: for a scientist to get a grant funded with any new idea requires preliminary data showing that the idea is a good one. The seed money, philanthropy and small donations are the essential capitol that allows scientists to generate that preliminary data that will make a larger grant application successful.

Think of a scientist as an entrepreneur. One person may have a great idea or product, but must then make a prototype (preliminary data) to show that the idea works, then sell that product (publish some preliminary data) to get the capitol (grants) that will allow the expanded production.

Putting a face on a grant

For me this was very concrete. Locally, the Jori Zemel Foundation wished to fund projects in bone cancer research and gave me resources to pay for a postdoctoral fellow to work in my laboratory for two years. This donation was more than $100,000.

Based on the lab work completed by this fellow, we successfully competed for a large grant, my first R01 award from the National Institutes of Health. This grant provides MD Anderson with more than $1.6 million dollars over five years. That amounts to a return on investment of more than 16-fold in just a few years.

The Zemel Foundation was so pleased with the results that they funded another postdoctoral fellow with a different project for a similar amount. That fellow’s research formed the basis of a second R01 grant currently before the National Cancer Institute, which should yield a similar amount of money.

Thus a small, dedicated group that wanted to make a difference in bone cancer research has leveraged their resources, through my lab, to get a substantial grant focused on the disease that they care about most. It’s amazing what a committed group of people can accomplish by leveraging their donations to support new ideas.

© 2015 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center