Partnering for Cures—Disruptors' Academy: Crafting a High-Impact Prize or Challenge: Lessons from the Field

November 06, 2015

Josh Sommer of the Chordoma Foundation moderated the Disruptors' Academy session "Crafting a high-impact prize or challenge: Lessons from the field" at this year's Partnering for Cures meeting. He began by describing how the Ansari X Prize has helped spur the private spacecraft industry. Organizations focused on medical research have taken notice, and now prizes are awarded for diseases from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) to cancer.

The panelists explored whether prizes achieve their goals, how to maximize their effectiveness, and what organizations should consider before launching a prize or challenge.

"As a big pharma company," said Sridaran Natesan of Sanofi, "the challenge we face is how do you get access to early innovation?" When his company began to change its focus from small molecules to biologics, its leaders realized they needed new expertise. They approached MIT and built an institution-wide partnership. Sanofi called for proposals across MIT, with a focus on biologic-based drug therapy and nanotechnology projects. Then, Sanofi's team worked closely with the MIT teams that were awarded funding, which further strengthened ties with the university.

They ended up funding much bigger and longer-term projects than anticipated, Natesan said. "For us, this was a very successful outcome." Sanofi decided to scale up the model and now has relationships with seven institutions across the country. "We are very serious about building a strong network," Natesan added. Sanofi received hundreds of responses to its recent request for proposals and will help develop ideas that look promising.

In contrast to the broad scope of the Sanofi prizes, Prize4Life focuses on accelerating therapy development for ALS. According to Sara Shnider, the organization was founded by a young man who was an entrepreneur as well as an ALS patient. There was little hope of progress for his disease, so he decided to focus on incentive prizes. A recent request for proposals for a $1-million ALS Treatment Prize drew 16 teams with potential solutions.

Imran Babar recounted that Rare Genomics was established in 2011, when its founders recognized that undiagnosed patients were falling through the cracks. Genome sequencing could potentially help these people by pinpointing their illnesses and treatment options. The organization provides a crowdfunding platform to help finance this sequencing. Now, with a network of experts, Rare

Genomics focuses on post-sequencing efforts as well. "We've evolved quite a bit," said Babar.

Babar described the organization's BeHEARD (Helping Empower and Accelerate Research Discoveries) challenge, which is supported by 18 companies that donate a technology product or service. Researchers are invited to apply for projects that involve rare diseases. At first, Babar thought it would be difficult to attract sponsors but was impressed with their willingness to get involved. He was also surprised at the involvement of the research community, which is evaluating proposals and raising awareness of the prize and rare diseases.

During Alph Bingham's career, in which he helped start seven companies, he began to notice systemic obstacles in bringing new therapies to market. He wanted to tap into experts who would see problems in a different way, so he launched Innocentive. In his experience awarding 2,000 prizes, he has come to believe that about 95 percent of the time, the prize winner has a resume that normally wouldn't get them selected even to work on the project.

Prize4Life inspired Sommer to pursue a prize, so he tapped into Bingham's expertise at Innocentive when the Chordoma Foundation wanted to offer a $10,000 prize in 2011. By selecting 10 winners, the foundation "accidentally created conditions for solvers," said Sommer. Because the researchers didn't feel the pressure to compete for just one award, they could work with and learn from one another during the process. One winner was from a university in Austria that Sommer had never heard of, which showed that the prize helped to expand the network of researchers working on chordoma, a rare cancer.

Shnider cited another advantage of the prize model: tapping into a fresh donor pool. When Prize4Life began, its founder didn't want to be another organization in the ALS space that was competing for donors. In addition, these donors give money only if there is a successful idea that helps them achieve their goal.

All the panelists talked about the benefit of engaging nontraditional partners in tackling tough research questions. "We're attracted to bringing new minds into the field," said Shnider.

Therefore, it is critical to support prize teams throughout the process, which may involve awarding interim prizes as an incentive to continue. "Some of these prizes take a long time for the innovation to mature," explained Sommer. Bingham suggested that the prize should not go more than six months without some type of awarding event.

When no team had achieved the desired outcome at the end of one of Prize4Life's prize periods, the organization awarded a milestone prize of $50,000 to each of two teams with promising ideas, encouraging them to continue for two more years. The teams had to report on their progress as they pursued their strategies.

Another way to support teams is by providing mentors in the research field. "Connecting [teams] with the right people who can guide them is very important," said Natesan.

Because the prize model is flexible, metrics can vary from project to project. In addition to the research challenges that each prize addresses, the panelists cited many ways to measure success, including increasing awareness of a disease, engaging people from outside the research field, how much follow-on funding the awardees receive, and how many people were involved in the effort. "Our motivation will determine our design, which will ultimately determine our metrics," said Babar.

All the panelists were focused on the end results, not the steps it took to achieve the goal, which allowed the prize teams the latitude to tackle the challenges in new and innovative ways.

As Natesan observed, "There are multiple solutions to any problem."


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