July 18, 2018; Business Insider
Bill Gates has already invested $50 million into Alzheimer’s research, but now he’s also throwing into a collective $30 million venture philanthropy pot called the Diagnostics Accelerator, whose purpose is to experiment with a variety of ways for diagnosing Alzheimer’s early through biomarkers. The fund will use a crowdsourcing approach (if you consider researchers as a crowd), and it also has plans to share in any profits made through a breakthrough, investing them back into the original fund. Other investors include Leonard Lauder and the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation.
Currently, Alzheimer’s diagnoses are more a matter of ruling other medical problems out than definitively confirming the disease. A certain diagnosis only really comes with an autopsy. Even getting close to one while still alive is costly and requires complex and invasive procedures. Early detection before clear signs of decline is currently difficult and sometimes painful. This makes early diagnosis an important intervention point.
“We need a better way of diagnosing Alzheimer’s—like a simple blood test or eye exam—before we’re able to slow the progression of the disease,” Gates writes in his blog. “It’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem. It’s hard to come up with a game changing new drug without a cheaper and less invasive way to diagnose patients earlier. But most people don’t want to find out if they have the disease earlier when there’s no way to treat it.”
He describes the funding approach this way:
Diagnostics Accelerator is a venture philanthropy vehicle, which means it’s different from most funds. Investments from governments or charitable organizations are fantastic at generating new ideas and cutting-edge research—but they’re not always great at creating usable products, since no one stands to make a profit at the end of the day. Venture capital, on the other end of the spectrum, is more likely to develop a test that will actually reach patients, but its financial model favors projects that will earn big returns for investors.
Venture philanthropy splits the difference. It incentivizes a bold, risk-taking approach to research with an end goal of a real product for real patients. If any of the projects backed by Diagnostics Accelerator succeed, our share of the financial windfall goes right back into the fund.
My hope is that this investment builds a bridge from academic research to a reliable, affordable, and accessible diagnostic. I expect to see lots of new players come to the table, who have innovative new ideas but might not have previously had the resources to explore them. If you think you’re one of these bold thinkers, we want to hear your great ideas. I encourage you to apply for funding on the new Diagnostics Accelerator website here.
The Accelerator is now seeking letters of intent preliminary to full proposals here, and it is offering consultants to research teams to help fine-tune research designs.—Ruth McCambridge