Fast money: How a coronavirus research funder moved millions in days

Scientific research costs money. As a result, the pace of scientific and medical advances is determined in part by a slow grant review process, typically lasting several months. Careful application reviews have their place – government agencies tend to deliberately move significant public funds, and even the wealthiest private foundations tend to carefully review their investments.

But when a global pandemic like COVID-19 is raging, each day takes a heavy and obvious toll on life, money and societal well-being. That’s forcing philanthropists to look for new ways to get money where it’s needed, when it’s needed.

You might want to take a look at Fast Grants, a grant program for coronavirus researchers recently launched at George Mason University in Virginia. It’s the brainchild of GMU economist Tyler Cowen and tech entrepreneur Patrick Collison, Stripe’s billionaire co-founder and CEO. Other tech businessmen contributed funds to launch the program, including Stripe co-founder John Collison (Patrick’s brother), Elon Musk, LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman, and others.

Fast Grants are designed to offer a fast vetting process that will allow biomedical researchers to go full steam ahead with their work and, ideally, help bring the world back to some sort of normality that much sooner. Researchers at academic institutions currently working on COVID-19 projects have been invited to apply for Fast Grants ranging from $10,000 to $500,000. But the more interesting number is 48 — that’s the number of hours after submission it takes reviewers to make a decision and send the money.

In addition, applicants are only justified whether their work could help with the COVID-19 pandemic within the next six months; Otherwise, grantees have full autonomy in deciding how the funds are spent. All resulting research must also be submitted to a preprint server, which publishes draft papers prior to peer review.

Cowen is one of the most influential economists of the last decade and probably one of the most widely read economists outside of the discipline. When the coronavirus emergency struck, he realized that delays in the lab would result in significant global damage. “We are living in a situation where large numbers of people are dying, trillions of dollars of economic value are collapsing in weeks, the need has been unprecedented,” Cowen said.

In mid-April, within days of the call for proposals, Fast Grants received around 4,000 applications, many of them highly qualified and from top institutions. Twenty reviewers split it up and got to work, and within days about $21 million was allocated for 127 awards. Fast Grants has since stopped accepting applications, but Cowen said they are seeking additional funding for a second round.

It is helpful to look at the organizations and environment that gave rise to Fast Grants to understand why it was able to develop so quickly. Fast Grants is a sister program of Emerging ventures, a fellowship and fellowship program with a similar focus on rapid funding but for a broader range of interests and recipients beyond health research. And Emergent Ventures is based at GMU’s Mercatus Center, a think tank that strives to advance market-based ideas that “bridge the gap between academic research and public policy problems.”

Mercatus and Emergent Ventures have unique funding histories of their own, each founded and heavily backed by libertarian donors. Mercatus was created with Funding by Charles and David Koch to advance free-market ideas, and Charles Koch used to be a board member of the think tank. Emergent Strategies was founded in 2018 with a $1 million donation from the Thiel Foundation, the philanthropy of Peter Thiel, known for his conservative politics and support of Donald Trump as well as his venture capital career.

Though based in academia, Fast Grants is an organization that has one foot on campus and the other firmly in the marketplace. While the growing list of donors doesn’t necessarily align with Mercatus’ ideological stance, most of its supporters come from the tech and startup world – including Paul Graham of Y Combinator, Yuri MilnerEric and Wendy Schmidt’s outfit Schmidt Futures, and the Emerson collective. In other words, people who like to move fast (and hopefully don’t break anything).

Another likely reason for the fast design and execution of Fast Grants is that Cowen has been the Mercatus Center’s Chair for 22 years: As a leader, he can make things happen.

During the Fast Grants review process, Cowen and his colleagues had the opportunity to interview several applicants. “We conducted an informal survey of a number of these people and places and asked them, ‘What is your funding situation?’ And a lot of them said, ‘We’ll get money in six months, maybe four months if we’re lucky.’”

Most funders are just too slow, Cowen said — but they already know that. In fact, Cowen said he’s received numerous inquiries from foundations and government funders asking how they can expedite grantmaking in their own organizations. So what’s the secret sauce? Cowen says it’s mostly a matter of top-down engagement, and at Fast Grants Cowen is the top guy.

Many funders, especially larger foundations, have hierarchies and infrastructures that slow down the review process and ultimately the writing of the check. If funders want to react more quickly to the ongoing corona crisis or other urgent causes, a cultural change at their institutions is required. Many foundations have been dealing with this in recent months, with some institutional sponsors having relaxed the bureaucratic effort and application requirements. After all, that’s one of the potential benefits of the philanthropic sector — it can act quickly if it wants to. At some foundations, too much scrutiny at the top can actually be a cause of the slowdown, but in the case of Fast Grants, Cowen says leadership’s commitment to speed made all the difference.

“Part of it is just making the decision to do it, and take your top people and keep them full-time,” he said. “Most[financiers]don’t do that. But we need faster funding models.”

However those models take shape, Cowen says the pandemic should open people’s eyes to the potential dangers of delay. “You know who was really fast was the NBA,” he said. “I give them a lot of credit – they canceled the whole season before anyone did anything and it seemed crazy, but they were absolutely right and it woke the whole country up.”

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