Entrepreneurial scientists: there’s a new fund for you

The San Francisco-based Thiel Foundation announced today that it will be offering funds to entrepreneurial-minded scientists for early stage science and technology research via Breakout Labs. From the Oct. 25, 2011 article by Anya Kamenetz for Fast Company,

Last seen paying kids to drop out of college and starting his own private island nation, PayPal founder Peter Thiel has announced a new philanthropic venture that sounds a little more reasonable. Breakout Labs, Thiel said at a speech at Stanford, would grant $50,000 to $350,000 in funding to “entrepreneurial” scientists–those completely independent of typical research institutions–for very early projects that may even be pre-proof of concept. Some of the money must be paid forward through revenue-sharing agreements with Breakout Labs, and the scientists must pursue patents or publish their findings in open-access journals like PLoS [Public Library of Science], Creative Commons-style.

There’s more information in the Oct. 25, 2011 media release on the Thiel Foundation website,

Calling for more rapid innovation in science and technology, Peter Thiel today launched a new program of the Thiel Foundation, Breakout Labs. Speaking at Stanford to an event organized by the Business Association of Stanford Entrepreneurial Students, Thiel announced that Breakout Labs will use a revolving fund to improve the way early-stage science and technology research is funded by helping independent scientists and early-stage companies develop their most radical ideas.

“Some of the world’s most important technologies were created by independent minds working long nights in garage labs,” said Thiel. “But when their ideas are too new, unproven, or unpopular, these visionaries can find it difficult to obtain support. Through Breakout Labs, we’re going to create opportunities for revolutionary science by cultivating an entrepreneurial research model that prizes extreme creativity and bold thinking.”

With venture capital shifting to later and later stages of development and commercialization, and with ever shorter investment time horizons, there are few available means of support for independent early-stage development of science and technology. But many of these technologies are ripe for the same kind of innovations that began in computing during the 1970s, when small, visionary start-ups began to take on industry giants who wielded much bigger research and development budgets. Breakout Labs will accelerate this trend.

“Venture capital firms look for research that can be brought to market within five to seven years, and major funders like the National Institutes of Health have a low tolerance for radical ideas,” said Breakout Labs founder and executive director Lindy Fishburne. “At Breakout Labs, we’re looking for ideas that are too ahead of their time for traditional funding sources, but represent the first step toward something that, if successful, would be groundbreaking.”

Then there’s the Programs page of the Breakout Lab’s website,

Breakout Labs is a bold re-envisioning of the way early-stage science gets funded, allowing independent researchers and early-stage companies to test their most radical ideas. We invite individuals, teams of individuals, and early stage companies from around the world to apply for funding of a specific project that would push the limits of science and technology.

It’s unusual to see a funding program that isn’t constrained by nationality or country of residence. Another unusual feature is that  revenue sharing is being built into relationship,

Breakout Labs offers two types of revenue sharing agreements:

  • Funded companies retain IP that arises from the project and commit a modest royalty stream and an option for a small investment in their company to Breakout Labs.
  • Funded researchers assign project IP to Breakout Labs in exchange for a substantial royalty stream from any future revenue generated by successful commercialization of the IP.

Key to support from Breakout Labs is an agreement that maximizes the dissemination of the resulting innovations, either through publication or intellectual property development.

Good luck to all the entrepeneurial scientists out there!

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