A philanthropy-backed experiment in fast, flexible funding for COVID-19 delivered results

Lindsay Borthwick
January 12, 2022

The pandemic provoked a bold experiment in research funding that put money into the hands of two dozen Canadian COVID-19 researchers in record time. 

Known as Fast Grants, the philanthropy-backed initiative turned around its first batch of funding applications over Easter weekend in 2020. According to its founders, the speed was a rebuke to the sluggish institutional response to COVID-19, which was failing to deliver in the face of a global crisis. 

A year and a half later, some of its biggest bets have paid off, changing how COVID-19 is detected, tracked and treated. Fast Grants is also inspiring others to rethink how science is funded, especially when it matters most.

“We learned we can do science funding better and faster in times of emergency,” said Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia who co-founded Fast Grants with Patrick Collison, San Francisco-based CEO of the financial services company Stripe, and Patrick Hsu, an assistant professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley

The goal of Fast Grants was to accelerate advances to stop COVID. Cowen and team aimed to kickstart pandemic research by streamlining the funding process, so they designed an application that could be completed in 30 minutes or less, committed to making funding decisions within 48 hours, and deploying funds to researchers within days. (A subsequent round of funding extended the review process to a more manageable two-week period.) Funding decisions were made by a 20-member review panel of biomedical researchers.

Donors quickly stepped up, including Tesla's Elon Musk, LinkedIn's Reid Hoffman, Shopify's Tobias Lütke and Lütke's wife Fiona McKean.

In early 2020, Lütke and McKean seeded the Thistledown Foundation with a large endowment to focus on carbon removal technologies. When the pandemic struck, the couple began looking for easy to provide rapid funding to Canadian institutions to accelerate COVID-19 research. That is when Fast Grants came along. 

They committed $5 million to FastGrants, designated to support Canadian researchers who were successful in the application process.

“We can demonstrate that fast is both possible and valuable. Fast Grants assembled an incredible team, but they’d also built the technical infrastructure to go fast,” said Thistledown’s COO, Meghan Hanley, in an email to Research Money. 

Since 2020, Fast Grants has supported more than 260 principal investigators with more than U.S. $50 million in funding. Of those, 23 grants were funded in partnership with the Thistledown Foundation.

A fast and flexible approach

The largest FastGrant went to Edward Mills, a professor of Health Research Methods, Evidence, and Impact in the Faculty of Health Sciences at McMaster University. 

Mills co-leads the TOGETHER Trial, the largest placebo-controlled trial of COVID-19 therapies in the world. To date, the trial has evaluated 11 different interventions. In late October, Mills and his collaborators published a study demonstrating that the widely available anti-depressant medication fluvoxamine decreases hospital admissions for COVID-19 patients by up to 30 percent.

Fluvoxamine is now being used to treat COVID-19 in patients worldwide, especially in low- and middle-income countries where vaccines are hard to get, and has been added to clinical practice guidelines in many jurisdictions, including Ontario.

In an interview with Research Money, Mills said the TOGETHER Trial, which uses a new trial design to evaluate multiple treatments for the same condition, would not have been funded by a traditional source. He also credited the success of the trial in part to the rapid deployment of funds by Fast Grants, which enabled the research team to get up and running in Brazil and recruit participants quickly.

“Timeliness is where Fast Grants is so incredibly innovative,” said Mills, who had a separate project funded by the Thistledown Foundation via FastGrants prior to the TOGETHER Trial.

The fast funding also helped some Canadian researchers get larger, long-term support from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).

Dr. Jonathan Maguire, Professor of Paediatrics and Nutritional Sciences at the University of Toronto, leads a research network called TARGet Kids! He received funding from Fast Grants to study the epidemiology and disease severity of COVID-19 in children and families. He applied for funding on April 6, 2020, was approved on April 16, and received the funds on April 20, according to Hanley. Maguire’s TARGet Kids! COVID-19 Study of Children and Families was subsequently funded by CIHR.

Similarly, John Bell, a senior scientist at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, amassed preliminary data with the support of Fast Grants that led to a major grant from CIHR. 

Bell’s team usually develops viral-based cancer therapeutics. At the onset of the pandemic, they applied to Fast Grants to use their cancer-fighting viruses to develop COVID-19 vaccines.

In mid-December, they published their results: A single dose of TOH-Vac1 generated a powerful, multi-pronged immune response in mice and monkeys. TOH-Vac1 is based on a strain of the smallpox virus that has been used in vaccines for decades. It also has other advantages compared with other COVID-19 vaccines. For example, it replicates in cells and therefore provokes a very strong and durable immune response.

In an interview with Research Money, Bell said the research wouldn’t have been possible without Fast Grants, which provided timely and flexible funding that catalyzed the research.

“We couldn’t use our funding for cancer research to do this,” he said. In addition to the vaccine, “we developed new things that never would have come out otherwise, like a biosensor that has been used around the world to screen for drugs against COVID-19. It only came about because of us thinking about the problem of how to screen for things that block virus entry.”

“I think it demonstrates to everybody the great depth of knowledge and expertise in this country, which is sort of simmering there all the time, because we have enough money to keep the water warm, but not to get to a boil."—John Bell, Senior Scientist, Ottawa Health Research Institute

Above all else, Bell said, Fast Grants illustrates the need to put more money into research in Canada. “I think it demonstrates to everybody the great depth of knowledge and expertise in this country, which is sort of simmering there all the time, because we have enough money to keep the water warm, but not to get to a boil."

Mills said another major difference with Fast Grants is researchers are treated with respect. "That's a key issue," he said. "Not everything we’ve discussed with Fast Grants has been funded but they have always listened to us and given our ideas consideration."

He credits the initiative's success with its focus on supporting talented researchers and giving them the flexibility to pursue their best ideas.

“They found people who had a history being highly productive, and that's who they invested in. And I think that that's very illustrative of why they're having successes,“ said Mills.

The future of fast funding

Fast Grants hasn’t issued a new call for proposals recently, but it is still active. For example, it just backed research into the development of a pan-coronavirus vaccine. 

It has also inspired others to adopt a similar science funding model.

In September, a U.S.-based not-for-profit launched Longevity Impetus Grants to support research in the longevity field that is "unlikely to be funded anywhere else.”

Last month, Collison, Hsu and several others launched the Arc Institute in Palo Alto, California, to fund collaborative high-risk, high-reward research on complex genetic diseases. Informed by learnings from Fast Grants, Arc Institute will provide unrestrained funding to researchers for renewable eight-year terms. In addition to emphasizing people over projects, Arc aims to invest in scientific tools and infrastructure, and make it easier to translate good ideas from the lab to the clinic.

In a tweet about the new institute, Collison wrote: "Arc is influenced by Fast Grants and what we learned there. In particular, Fast Grants increased our conviction that there are important and under-explored points in the space of possible institutional configurations.”

Cowen said he shares his learnings from Fast Grants with funders daily and is hopeful that Fast Grants will have an impact beyond COVID-19 research: “I have calls with some governments and quite a few foundations who want to copy lessons from Fast Grants. I'm heartened by this, but we'll see what comes of it."

"They themselves see the challenge. They've built in a lot of layers of bureaucracy. And it's not always that easy for them to change," he said.

Mills is less optimistic that the model can be replicated, especially by large institutions.

"I think [the model is] only scalable when you have the leadership of individuals who want to disrupt a system. I don't think that you can hand over this type of innovation, for example, to the same people who work at CIHR [...] and expect them to all of a sudden be innovative."

At Thistledown, Fast Grants was its first major granting experience and it has rubbed off. Hanley said the foundation is committed to deploying funds quickly and "with far less paperwork than people are used to."


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