In early April, Cowen launched Fast Grants, a project designed to quickly get money to scientists leading promising coronavirus research. In less than a month, with the help of donations from a few prominent Silicon Valley executives, Fast Grants has awarded $18 million to more than 100 researchers working on projects including several potential vaccines and treatments for covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“This whole project did not even exist a few weeks ago . . . and I wonder, why can’t the rest of the world be this quick?” Cowen said.
Fast Grants, Cowen said, spun out of several conversations he had with Patrick Collison, the Irish billionaire and chief executive of the payment company Stripe. Collison and his brother, Stripe co-founder John Collison, were the first donors to Fast Grants, which has also received money from Tesla’s Elon Musk and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman.
While the $18 million raised, so far, is a small fraction of the collective wealth of his Silicon Valley supporters, Cowen said he expects to raise more and expressed optimism about the first round of projects Fast Grants has funded, which came from more than 4,000 applicants from scientific researchers that flooded in earlier this month. Fast Grants, which offers grants ranging from $10,000 to $500,000, has stopped reviewing applications until more money is raised.
“The donors we have are doing other things with other programs, and I think they’ve been remarkably generous,” he said.
In contrast with the review process overseen by organizations such as the National Institutes of Health — the largest funder of scientific research in the United States, whose review process can take six months or more — Fast Grants promises to respond within days. The application is two pages long, Cowen said, and he’s assembled a team of about 20 scientific and medical experts who serve as “referees,” selecting what they believe are the most deserving prospective projects.
The setup is modeled on Emergent Ventures, a small fellowship and grant program Cowen oversees at George Mason that quickly reviews and funds research proposed by “talented individuals with unique ideas for changing the world,” including projects by a 17-year-old Indian prodigy who wanted to pursue brain science and a high school student in Pennsylvania interested in developing an app to help the blind interpret images.
“We have been practicing speed for over a year and a half, so we already had the infrastructure,” Cowen said. “The NIH . . . they are not built for speed. They are not the Manhattan Project.”
NIH spokespeople did not reply to requests for comment.
In addition to potential vaccines and treatments, Fast Grants has also funded research examining improvements to coronavirus tests, methods to best decontaminate N95 masks for reuse by health-care workers, and a Canadian study of 1,000 families that seeks to provide better data about the risks of infection among children — and from children to adults — that could inform government decisions on when to reopen schools and day cares.
While current research suggests children are at lower risk of developing severe symptoms of covid-19, schools and day cares around the globe have closed out of fear children are spreading the disease to at-risk adults. Some researchers have theorized that children aren’t actually a major risk for transmitting coronavirus to adults, however, and if data supports that theory, schools could reopen.
“Until we have better data, this is going to be a really difficult decision,” said Jonathon Maguire, a pediatrician and researcher at St. Michael’s Hospital, part of Unity Health Toronto.
Maguire applied for funding on April 6, he said, and heard he’d been approved for about $142,000 by April 16. He started recruiting children and families for his study last week, and his research is underway.
“It moved remarkably quickly,” Maguire said. “Normally this process takes several months, if not more than a year.”
Cowen acknowledged there are valid reasons for some aspects of the standard application and review processes but said he’s more concerned that he’s missing worthy applicants at Fast Grants than he is about funding projects that won’t produce results.
“We don’t think every grant that is made will lead to final success, but that’s the nature of science,” Cowen said. “What we want is for a few of them to really matter, and I think the chance of that is pretty high. . . . We only need to stop this thing once.”