Expert medical research funders – Responding to COVID-19

richard ross

Ask Richard Ross what has been the response of the Rosetrees Trust to Covid-19 and he replies: “It has taken 30 years of work to be in the right position to respond rapidly to this crisis.”

On Mar 20th, @RosetreesT posted a Tweet to its national network of medical research organisations – and beyond – asking for proposals on how to tackle the short-term impact of COVID-19.

The trust set up a special panel of scientific advisers to assess the applications, galvanised its 12 staff and leveraged its proprietary software to speed up its review process. The Rosetrees’ team also reached out to other funders and individuals to pool expert resources and identify funding for the projects most likely to have a short term impact.

Asked how much Richard expects to mobilise into COVID-19 research in the short term and his answer is: “Potentially millions, if Rosetrees can identify the highest quality research that will bring early benefits to patients”. This amount will include funding from his family trust and a wider network of co-funders that align with the trust for individual projects.

So far, Richard’s team have evaluated 40 COVID-19 related projects. Among those that made it onto the shortlist – some of which are now being funded by government and the corporate sector – are:

  • Designing fast-build ventilators based on technologies already used in India, Nigeria and the US
  • Scaling up UK production of respiratory-support face masks
  • Artificial intelligence modelling of vital signs data from intensive care patients to spot early warning signs for high-risk patient groups
  • Testing kits to determine those who have had the virus

Three of these projects emerged from UCL Institute of Healthcare Engineering, which brings together leading researchers across UCL and its partner hospitals to develop digital and medical technologies.

Professor Rebecca Shipley, the Institute’s Director said:“The academic community is rapidly coming together to tackle coronavirus, pooling knowledge and resources, and forming interdisciplinary teams. The impact of these teams would be greatly accelerated by funding that is flexible and that can be accessed quickly from a single point of contact. Philanthropic funding can fill that niche to get projects rolling.”

UCL is just one of the institutions with which Rosetrees has developed relationships over the last 30 years, when Richard took over as chair. The trust was established by his parents in 1987 and to date has funded 2,000 projects with direct and co-funded grants totalling £500 million.

Even before COVID-19 started its global march, Rosetrees was planning to lead the charge to scale up giving to medical research in the UK with a target of £2 billion by 2040. That target stands, but Rosetrees is pivoting to determine what needs will likely emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic in the short, medium and long term.

In addition to immediate needs, Rosetrees’ scientific experts are examining proposals relating to virus testing, vaccination, scanning for long-term health impacts and mental health support.

“You can’t just press the button and get an expert. We started expanding our network as soon as we became aware of the virus in China. As funders, we are also conscious that this will not be a short-term outbreak, we need to be planning for the months and years ahead.”

He points out that Rosetrees Trust is unusual in the funding world because it operates like a business. For him, that means acting flexibly: identifying innovation at the same time as planning for the long term. His team have established deep relationships with Rosetrees’ grantee organisations and the trust prides itself on being able to respond quickly when they spot valuable new concepts.

The approach has attracted a cohort of private co-funders – other philanthropists who do not have their own grantmaking staff, but trust Richard’s team and fund alongside Rosetrees.

“We share all of our knowledge and resources for free and it means we can support a community of funders and act as a single point of contact for the research community. It is a unique model which provides two levels of seed corn funding, enlarges the funds available for the best research and enables large grants to be awarded to progress the research.”

In the highly specialist field of medical research, his experience highlights the importance of having access to experts. This is an area of funding that really lends itself to collaboration and co-funding.

“I hope we can encourage more philanthropists to step forward to support the Covid-19 effort. Too few people who can afford to give are willing to consider it. There is far more value and pleasure in gifting to worthwhile causes than simply spending it on yourself. This has always been true, but especially so now.”