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Tech Entrepreneur Offers Grants for Indie Science

Peter Thiel

The Thiel Foundation

Working on a garage project that could make the world a better place but don't have the cash for that DNA sequencer you spotted on eBay? A new program launched by a billionaire tech entrepreneur has your back.

Breakout Labs is offering grants to independent researchers working on "radical" ideas. It's the brainchild of Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal and early investor in Facebook, whose foundation already supports aging and artificial intelligence research. The new venture follows on a project launched last year in which the Thiel Foundation gave $100,000 to 24 college students to drop out of school and pursue an entrepreneurial idea. Now Thiel wants to fund "revolutionary" science by do-it-yourself scientists and those with start-up companies that aren't far enough along to attract venture capital, a press release says.

At the Breakout Labs Web site, independent researchers can fill out a 10-page application that will be reviewed internally, then by two or three scientific experts, says program founder and executive director Lindy Fishburne. Applicants may have received federal funding previously, but must be now "working outside the confines of a traditional university research setup." They also need to hold full rights to their intellectual property. Preliminary data are not required, she adds, just "a really interesting hypothesis." Applications will be reviewed as they come in.

The foundation hopes to make 10 to 20 awards in the first year, ranging from around $50,000 to $350,000. That's not much compared with a National Institutes of Health research grant, for example, which is typically $100,000 to $350,000 a year for 4 years and renewable. But when indie scientists can set up a lab at home by buying equipment online, "a relatively modest amount of money can accelerate ideas in a significant way," Fishburne says.

Scientists in any discipline can apply, but the program expects to attract proposals from fields on "the edges" such as synthetic biology and nanotechnology, Fishburne says. As examples of possible applicants, she mentions a retired Intel scientist who set up a wet lab in his garage and a chemist, physicist, and biologist, two just out of college and one partway through, who also built a lab in the garage of their shared house. (While researching how to set up the program, Breakout Labs came across worthy projects to review and will award its first grants as soon as December.)

There are a few strings attached. The grantees must publish in open-access journals. They also must agree to help support more projects, either by sharing a small portion of future royalties with Breakout Labs or by assigning intellectual property to the program in exchange for keeping a large part of royalties.

How long Breakout Labs will run depends on the quality of the proposals it attracts, says Fishburne. "We haven't put an outer bound on the lifespan," she says. And while first-round winners shouldn't expect continued funding, says Fishburne, Breakout Labs will consider requests for a second award on a case-by-case basis.