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July 19, 2022

Interview with Mike Lewis, Director of UK’s Invention for Innovation Program

by Stuart Buck

At the UK’s National Institute for Health and Care Research, Mike Lewis is the director of the Invention for Innovation program. From his online bio, “Mike is Professor of Life Science Innovation at the University of Birmingham. He has an extensive industrial background in life sciences and digital innovation in healthcare having previously held senior roles at Align Technology (Amsterdam), Boston Scientific (Paris), C.R. Bard (New Jersey), Sybron (Switzerland) and Becton Dickinson (UK). He was President of Gambro (Sweden) in the £3bn public to private buyout.”

I interviewed Lewis about his exciting new initiative: Funding At the Speed of Translation, or FAST grants (a familiar term!). The initiative is “based around simplified bureaucracy, velocity, light-touch due diligence, and removing barriers to access rapid grant funding.”

What was the inspiration for the “FAST grant” initiative, i.e., “Funding At the Speed of Translation?

Before joining the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) as i4i Programme Director, I chaired multiple government research funding panels including life sciences, 5G, robotics and drones, and I was always frustrated by two things. Firstly, we did not have enough money to fund all the innovative and worthy concepts from across the UK; secondly, our processes can slow down innovation by being bureaucratic and unwieldy — we were the brake, not the gas pedal.

From my time in industry, working with digital health, device and biotech startups, innovation often hit what I termed the “inflection-block”. This is the time when answering a single question could either make or break a project, and allow the innovation to accelerate and raise further funds – Questions such as ‘Will I be able to make this small enough?’, ‘Will the market pay the price I need?’ or ‘How long and what is the route to regulatory acceptance?’

The Funding At the Speed of Translation (FAST) scheme was designed to become an enabler of innovation, with applicants completing a short application form and receiving a funding decision within 6 to 8 weeks, rather than the 6 to 12 months decision period typical of traditional grant funding cycles. FAST is also aiming to be a vehicle that gets promising innovation into the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and for emerging talent to access these funds for the development of innovative solutions

The initiative is described as a “pilot.” How will you know whether the pilot scheme actually worked? That is, what are the outcomes you want to measure, and how will you know whether the FAST initiative actually caused different outcomes than would have occurred otherwise?

We took a view on failing fast with the actual FAST programme itself, to see if it would work or not. We wanted to establish whether there was a need for smaller pots of funding to move innovation along the translational pathway, a demand from innovators, and if we could develop an appropriate and robust funding mechanism that worked for FAST funding.

This is why we decided to run a pilot. Starting with the pilot, we want to track follow-on applications to other funding streams across the NIHR and the wider landscape, to see if we are complementary to the available funding initiatives.

We also want to explore how innovators develop funding proposals and pitch their projects, and we will look at the quality of the applications we receive. For instance, one consideration is whether we allow enough space for applicants to articulate their innovation. We are therefore taking the opportunity to pause, refine and adapt the scheme, building on findings from the pilot. In time, we want to see how many successful applicants cross the inflection-block and how FAST funding has an impact on the translation of their technology.

Right now, FAST Awards are limited to £50k and 6 months in duration. Is there a realistic possibility that you will someday offer larger and/or longer grants under the FAST mechanism? Do you think that the FAST mechanism should have a broader and more permanent role in science funding?

If FAST is successful in a pilot setting, I think there are lessons in terms of velocity and mechanics that could be applied across a whole spectrum of government (and even charitable) grant funding.

There is a subliminal coupling of the calendar of grants with the traditional academic calendar, but innovation is not so rigid.  Over the last 7 years of working on grant committees, I noticed that the application forms have been getting longer and more complex, which has nurtured the development of an ‘industry’ in professional grant writing.

FAST is athematic but could become thematic, and there is a place for larger funding too. Although I like the 6 month limit, it is one of the challenges of the awards, as it means there has to be a discipline and delivery mind-set around FAST. It is designed to knock down the wall of the inflection-block and not take away the bricks one by one.

If you were talking to other science funders throughout the world, what would you advise them about how to experiment with different funding models? 

On the assumption that FAST is a success, I would certainly advise existing funders like the Gates Foundation, Templeton, Rockefeller and other charities to add a FAST funding mechanism to their offering, and the NIHR would be happy to help and share learnings, as we can all benefit from collaboration.

FAST could be a vehicle for our wealthy, benevolent and social minded citizens to help accelerate innovation in Life Sciences.  Large funders, such as the NIHR, are open to conversations about partnerships to facilitate the rapid funding of innovation.  The positive contributions from grant funding plus expertise could be very synergistic. FAST could also be a method for the non-science funders to become science funders.

So many scientific breakthroughs have been accidental like microwaves, plastic, penicillin and even Viagra. The more we can fund and the greater the spread, the higher will be our chances of finding new innovation, and funding more projects from development through to commercialisation for the benefit of healthcare systems and patients worldwide.