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Introducing the Homeworld Garden Grants
How have funding sources changed fields before, and what does this mean for climate biotech?
In this first blog post about Garden Grants, we learn from history to develop the ideas behind this new program. We explore the outsized impact of Y Combinator on startups and Fast Grants on Covid19 research, then announce our collaboration with Experiment.com.
We invite you to started with your journey at the Homeworld Garden Grants website: our first call is for protein engineering and the deadline is October 20, 2023. We will host a public webinar and Q&A on September 28, RSVP here.
Note: this is a mirror of Homeworld Collective’s blog post (link).
Rapid progress in a field needs the right catalyst
In the fall of 2009, I was an electrical engineering PhD student at Stanford who visited Y Combinator for a small gathering. I had barely heard of the place, but there I clearly remember co-founder Paul Graham talking about their recipe for rapidly funding early stage teams with very little evidence. An audience member asked:
"What makes you believe that a team is really serious about working on an idea?" Graham responded, "Easy. They tell everybody what they are working on!"
14 years later, Y Combinator is synonymous with elite silicon valley startups. Even with the impressive portfolio of 4,000 companies (including household names like Airbnb, Stripe, and Dropbox), the legacy of “YC” may be the durable cultural change catalyzed by a single funding mechanism. YC got the right combination of proposal standardization and engagement incentives that allowed creativity in the software ecosystem to flourish. By 2010, motivated by the outsized success of YC companies, many computer science students at Stanford knew how to pitch a startup. A new culture formed. Mixers and hackathons sprung up, all using the winning language from YC Demo Days. Startups raised money using free templates from YC's website. Even though I never had any further direct contact with YC after the one visit in 2009, my decision to leave my (first attempt at a) PhD to build startups was surely influenced by YC’s cultural effect.
Y Combinator is just one example of funding that changes the culture that changes a field. In science, Fast Grants stunned biomedical funding and Experiment.com is leading the charge on crowdfunding. How might a science funding targeted for the field of climate biotech induce a positive cultural change toward the most impactful efforts?
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This is an opportunity for Climate Biotech to move fast and grow things.
Successful climate action requires exponential growth. To reach gigaton carbon capture by 2030, for example, roughly requires a doubling of capacity every year. Biotech has potential to be a medium for difference-of-kind leaps in technology, but the funding needs to encourage big ideas that can be rapidly de-risked.
In climate biotech, everybody speaks the language of the NSF RFP or the ARPA-E FOA because that has been the core of our funding culture. But while those agencies are the bedrock of the climate biotech ecosystem (and are run by excellent people), the existing methods alone cannot create exponential growth in climate biotech.
Since 2021, our team at Homeworld Collective has met personally with over 500 practitioners and analyzed over 350,000 government-funded projects asking how we can support climate biotech better. Several themes have emerged:
There is a support gap for application-centric efforts that face scientific uncertainty, leaving the best ideas on scientists’ shelves.
Many excellent biologists are not working on climate yet because they don't know a good problem to work on or a good collaborator to work with.
Even when government funding is available, it can be a 9-month wait to learn whether you’ll receive it.
Fundable areas are mostly determined by the agency, not practitioner community, which may miss truly innovative efforts.
All of these are solvable.
At Homeworld, we think it's possible for a grantmaking program to fill the funding gap for de-risking early-stage ideas, educate the community about impactful problems, fund projects quickly, and stimulate discourse to prioritize impactful problems. We're launching our first Garden Grants call for translationally-focused protein engineering toward sustainability goals.
The invention of Fast Grants pushed grantmaking to work better
Fast Grants is the closest thing science has had to a YC-like funding innovation, and it’s no coincidence that funders include Paul Graham and YC alumni John and Patrick Collison.
The Fast Grants team demonstrated the jaw-dropping result that a 2-page proposal and 48 hours of technical review was enough to make $50 million dollars worth of funding decisions for biomedical science. Just like how YC's impact may outlive most of its 4,000 companies, the impact of Fast Grants goes beyond the 260 Covid projects it funded. Fast Grants was a wake-up call to show that scientists are not working on their best ideas because of the frustrating status quo of funding.
The Fast Grants’ retrospective analysis showed some incredible numbers:
81% of Fast Grants recipients said they’d be more ambitious if they had access to such flexible funding,
78% said they’d change their research topics “a lot” if they had less constraints on their funding, and
62% said they’d work outside their standard field if they could (which the NIH explicitly discourages).
The innovation in Fast Grants was not just about “Fast", it was about building a lean structure to fill gaps. In March 2020, the gap was the NIH couldn't move at the speed of a global pandemic. From our experience, the gaps in climate biotech are funding gaps to de-risk ambitious translational ideas and network gaps between excellent people who would be better if they collaborated. We must invest in community-scale productivity while also supporting specific projects onto successful journeys.
Traditional grantmaking is done in a black box. In most grantmaking calls, the community can’t see the problems being targeted, solutions being proposed, nor what was reviewed favorably. Maintaining confidentiality for intellectual property concerns is part of the explanation for this status quo of opacity, and we believe you can protect confidentiality while promoting more public discourse.
The Garden Grants are meant to be a safe space for ideas to grow
Just as a garden is a safe place for plants to grow and cross-pollinate, we intend for the Garden Grants to be a safe place for ideas to grow and cross-pollinate. The hypothesis of Garden Grants is that separating a grant proposal into a public problem statement and a private solution statement can stimulate community knowledge, discourse and collaboration as part of the grantmaking process. As we socialized this hypothesis, we found an aligned team coming from an unexpected starting point.
Enter Experiment.com, the gold standard crowdfunding platform for science. When we first met the Experiment Team (Denny Luan, Cindy Wu, David Lang), we immediately discovered alignment in our vision for how to fund science better (David's blog is appropriately title Science Better). Experiment has successfully funded over 1,200 projects, so the site has an exquisite amount of subtle optimizations built from helping thousands of scientists -- in topics ranging from interspecies communication to kilometer-deep caving explorations in Alaska-- attract supporters. We, and other granting organizations like Robert Downey Junior’s FootPrint Coalition, see the value in a beautiful public space to communicate project proposals.
Homeworld's vision to separate problem statements from solution statements maps directly to the Experiment.com platform. Experiment centers around a project page -which can be free of enabling disclosure information-- which is the place to convince the world that you are tackling an important, interesting problem. If a reviewer is convinced by the project page, the she'd be motivated to learn about the specific details in a confidential about how you plan to solve that problem.
First Garden Grants call is for Protein Engineering
Our first call for Garden Grants is for projects that use protein engineering to address a high-impact problem toward a frontier sustainability goal. We chose protein engineering because it’s one of the highest growth areas of biotechnology and proteins are already the catalysts for the biggest carbon fluxes in the world. Proteins could be the centerpoint of a re-imagination of the chemical industry, of sensing or degrading toxic chemicals, or of accelerating carbon capture.
As Paul Graham had said, when people are excited to tell their friends about what they are working on, they are more likely to succeed. We hope that the process of running the Garden Grants promotes new conversations, new relationships, new skill developments and ultimately transformational new technologies that reinforce each other.
In future posts, we will explain more about problem statements and our focus on protein engineering. In the meantime, you can refer to the Garden Grants Landing Page. Feel free to reach out to grants [at] homeworld [dot] bio if you have any questions or if we can support you in your climate biotech journey.
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