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Philanthropy-Fueled Frontiers: How Private Foundation Funding Impacts Partnerships

August 29, 2023 — Philanthropy is no stranger to scientific research, especially since the pandemic. The new, incredibly deadly virus required fast action. Billionaires, foundations, and other philanthropies stepped in to donate billions of dollars to speed up COVID-19-related discoveries.

Philanthropic research funding brings agility to address issues quickly and freedom to explore riskier research routes. How does philanthropic funding impact – directly or indirectly – university-industry partnerships?

Philanthropy for partnerships

Philanthropic research funding helps drive innovation by contributing resources with fewer strings attached. Often, this type of funding is more flexible than government or corporate investments, allowing researchers to pursue more high-risk research in uncharted domains. It also moves faster from proposal to funding than the normal government grant funding process; responsive government funding during the pandemic was structured to work around the usual hurdles so money could pour into efforts more quickly. Some research has even suggested that philanthropic research funding has become comparable to federal research funding in volume and scope. Leveraging philanthropic funding can add a burst of energy to existing university-industry partnerships, bolstering resources and enabling long-term research without pressure to commercialize results rapidly.

While foundations often directly fund university researchers, industry can co-invest to reap some of the benefits of philanthropic funding. Institutes founded by philanthropic funding serve as important centers for research, contributing to the innovation ecosystem. One example is the Roux Institute at UIDP member Northeastern University. The institute was established with gifts from the Roux Foundation and the Harold Alfond Foundation and is built upon partnerships with industry, university, and government entities. These collaborative, multi-sector partnerships would not have been possible without the private foundation funds that gave the institute its start.

Mission-based funding

Philanthropic organizations choose the types of research to fund based on their founding interests and mission. These foundations are non-homogeneous, with some even beginning to expand into venture philanthropy. Often, organizations fund one or several research focal areas, which could be as specific as a single disease to overarching topics like health, engineering, and climate research. With growing government and industry interest in use-inspired research, private foundations that fund basic research are critical to de-risk and champion emerging research areas. Private foundations often invest in new research centers or institutes that integrate with local or regional research enterprises to enhance the local innovation ecosystem. With mission-specific research goals, philanthropies and private foundations are important local and national contributors to the research landscape.

For example, the Kavli Foundation was established in 2000 to “advance science for the benefit of humanity.” It funds basic research in astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics through partnerships, initiatives, and portfolios designed to push the boundaries of science. The foundation supports research through 20 Kavli Institutes located at universities and research centers around the world. At our fall conference, UIDP Irvine, Cynthia Friend, president of the Kavli Foundation, will discuss the role of private foundations in the innovation ecosystem and improve the human condition.

Why it matters

Private foundations and philanthropic funding play a crucial role in fostering university-industry collaborations by providing financial support, expertise, and collaborative platforms. Through strategic investments, private foundations can offer a path to resources that fuel new collaborations or strengthen existing cross-sector partnerships, catalyzing innovation and furthering discovery to address complex global challenges. Philanthropic funding for research isn’t new, but these organizations can be powerful champions to fund emerging research topics that align with the foundation’s mission and goals.

We want to hear from you. Has your organization ever worked with private foundation funding for research? Let us know on our LinkedIn profile.

The 3-Minute Read is a UIDP member information piece and does not represent the opinions of our members or representatives. We welcome your comments on our LinkedIn profile.