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The Wellcome Trust, whose headquarters marries old and modern buildings, plans a future full of high-risk, high-reward research.

View Pictures/NICK GUTTRIDGE/VIEW/Newscom

Biomedical charity places major bet on ‘bold’ research to win bigger payoffs

The world’s second-biggest private funder of medical research, the London-based Wellcome Trust, is taking a high-stakes gamble. The charity announced this week that it would put £250 million (about $330 million) toward pursuing “bold ideas that would fall outside the remit of conventional life sciences funding.” The money is earmarked for ideas that have a high risk of failing or “need to overcome a major scientific or technical hurdle.” The money will also be open to researchers without a background in life sciences.

Called the Wellcome Leap Fund, the initiative will be set up as a subsidiary of the Wellcome Trust with an independent board; the search for a CEO will start shortly and its first research programs could start in late 2020. James Wilsdon, a science policy specialist at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, says considering people outside of biomedical research is a good idea. “Anything which further opens up Wellcome’s rich vein of funding to those wider communities of health research, practice, and policy is something we should embrace.”

Established in 1936 from the estate of eccentric businessman Henry Wellcome, the Wellcome Trust now has assets topping £23 billion, more than $30 million. Last year, it spent about £900 million on research, more than any other charity in the world except the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington. The new fund fits into the recent priorities of Wellcome Trust Director Jeremy Farrar, Wilsdon says. The charity, he explains, is“going beyond discovery-led biomedical and life sciences to support other areas of the research and innovation system for global health."

In recent years, other private funders, including the Gates Foundation, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, have begun to gamble more for a bigger payoff, devoting more funding to biomedical and public health projects that may be riskier but that have the potential of having a greater impact.