Follow the Funding

In times of budget belt-tightening at the federal level, life-science researchers can keep their work supported through private sources.  

By Bob Grant | May 1, 2015

© ISTOCK.COM/VECTORAARTA few years ago, David Sinclair’s lab was slipping through his fingers. With grant money running dry and the outlook for overall federal research budgets bleak, the Harvard geneticist was losing lab members because he couldn’t support them with funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), as he had done in years past. Sinclair says his 18-person-strong group dwindled to just four or five people. “And that was painful,” he recalls. “I had to let people go for lack of money.”

And Sinclair says he’s not alone. “Even at a place like Harvard, I know [other] labs that have downsized dramatically and even closed down,” he says. “So it’s hit across the board.”

In the face of such persistent financial stress, Sinclair was forced to reconsider his funding strategy. Rather than try to secure a few generous, but highly competitive, NIH grants, he began applying for diverse, smaller grants from private funding sources, such as foundations or corporate collaborations. “I didn’t really have a global plan,” Sinclair admits. “Really it’s just trying to get by every day. You try to keep your lab going at the same level any way possible.”

Many other scientists are similarly seeking private, rather than public, funding sources, as the federal budgetary sequestration extends into its second year and government research budgets show no signs of rebounding any time soon. Nir Barzilai, director of the Institute for Aging Research at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, used private money not only to fund his own lab, but to launch an entire research center. He and collaborators opened Einstein’s Paul F. Glenn Center for the Biology of Human Aging in 2012 with the help of a $3 million grant from the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research, and funding from private sources continues to fuel research at the center. “For me personally, the NIH hardships, I survived them,” Barzilai says. “When I hear of any private source, it’s immediately an e-mail to the people at the Center. . . . I probably have as much funding as I had before.”

The recent success of the biotech financial markets, with an unprecedented number of IPOs, has really brought a lot of money into the hands of younger companies that are focused on new biology, and are now valid sources of fund­ing.

—Michal Preminger,
Harvard University Office of Technology Development

The Scientist spoke to researchers using private funding to make ends meet and learned some of the tricks to finding and securing grant money even in these hard times.

A funding foundation

Numerous charitable foundations award small or medium-size research grants, usually in the range of $100,000 to $300,000, to scientists working on biological phenomena relevant to particular diseases or disorders. Sinclair has been able to secure funding from several philanthropic organizations—including the Glenn Foundation for Medical Research, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, and the United Mitochondrial Disease Foundation—as well as grants from Harvard that are meant to accelerate commercialization, and even gifts from private families, for work on diseases that involve mitochondrial malfunction. A bevy of charitable grants like these, though individually not often as robust as R01s from the NIH, can sustain a lab full of grad students, postdocs, and researchers.

Evris Gavathiotis, a biochemist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, has even used private foundation funding as a means to gather data that he can then use to write more-compelling NIH grant proposals. As a new faculty member in 2011, he knew he would need an R01 grant from the NIH to get his lab up and running. But his October 2012 proposal on a novel pharmacological strategy to induce apoptosis in cancer cells was rejected because experimental evidence supporting the approach was lacking. So Gavathiotis sought private funding to support the preliminary experiments. In 2013, he won a $200,000, two-year grant from the Sidney Kimmel Foundation to do in vivo toxicity experiments to show that his small-molecule approach to targeting BAX proteins was worthy of further investigation. When he resubmitted his R01 proposal later in 2013, it was accepted, and he was awarded the grant last year.

“We want to get NIH funding; it gives sustained funding to the lab,” Gavathiotis says. “[But foundation grants] help you fill the gaps if you don’t have an R01 or help you build up your research program to get to the point where you would be competitive for an R01.”

Just after getting his R01 grant last summer, Gavathiotis got another charitable grant, this time from the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which injected $165,000 into a project to discover drugs for Parkinson’s disease. Gavathiotis says that he plans on submitting proposals for at least two more R01s, but in the meantime, he will continue to apply for private grants as well. “It will give us some additional funding to finish these projects and get some more papers out,” he says. “Eventually the R01s will come.”

Relying on private funding to propel your research can, however, mean adjusting the goals of your work, notes Harvard’s Sinclair. “We do have more of a translational focus in general,” he says. “We’re not as free to do what we want to do as we used to be.”

Gavathiotis agrees. “There are not many foundations where you can get a grant on something where there’s no application. That’s how they work.”

Going industrial

Another source of private funding—one that necessitates even more of a translational approach—is the biotech and pharmaceutical industry. Sinclair’s group is working with pharmaceutical company Novo Nordisk, for example, searching for therapeutic proteins to treat type 2 diabetes. That collaboration alone has provided two years of funding and supported one postdoc in his lab, says Sinclair, who adds that his lab and the company recently extended the project.

Rather than simply partner with industry, Barzilai decided to join it, cofounding a biotech company with Sinclair and others as a way to generate money for basic research. In 2011, Barzilai, Sinclair, and a couple of colleagues launched CohBar, which is focused on the discovery and development of novel mitochondrial-derived peptides to treat disease and extend healthy life span. According to Barzilai, CohBar has raised about $17 million in the past year—$5.7 million in private funding and $11.25 million through an initial public offering (IPO) on the Toronto Venture Exchange this January. He adds that the firm is even able to outsource some of its R&D to academic researchers.

Seeking out private funding has been the saving grace for many labs, especially Sinclair’s. The total funding makeup of his lab, which now supports 22 people, is about 75 percent private and 25 percent federal. This includes just one NIH R01 grant, two projects that involve industry collaborations, funding from foundations, and a grant from Harvard’s Blavatnik Biomedical Accelerator. In addition to keeping his lab open in the face of economic hardships on the federal level, Sinclair notes another benefit: “I’ve spent much less time in the last two years writing NIH grants.” Plus, because his lab is primarily supported by private funding, Sinclair also spends much less time on administrative tasks, such as reporting and documentation, whereas NIH grants typically bring with them a heavy administrative burden.

The benefits of privacy

Going the private-funding route may mean thinking of your research in more of a translational sense. But that doesn’t have to be a negative, says Michal Preminger, executive director of the Harvard University Office of Technology Development. Preminger’s office aids in translating Harvard research into commercial products. And that means she spends most of her time playing matchmaker between academic labs and biotech firms or investors interested in a particular field of research. Preminger says that her office has helped increase the amount of industry dollars going into Harvard labs four- or fivefold in the past three years.

Even without the federal research budget squeeze that academic scientists have witnessed in the past few years, Preminger says, life science was ripe for the flow of private funding into basic science labs via industry and venture capital investments. “The recent success of the biotech financial markets, with an unprecedented number of IPOs, has really brought a lot of money into the hands of younger companies that are focused on new biology, and are now valid sources of funding,” even for academics, she says. “This is not really related to the need. It just happens to be the case that the life sciences have been able to deliver very interesting breakthroughs and innovation that have fueled the industry and raised the appetite for more.”

In addition to attracting private funding, shifting the focus of a basic-research program to include thinking about applications of the biology under study can also reinvigorate the work itself, Preminger adds. “Sometimes federal funding makes [researchers] very comfortable in a basic-research domain, and so the ability to venture out of that and look at more translational work is, on the one hand, important if you’re going to raise alternative sources of funding, but it also becomes a goal in its own right, once they’re exposed.”

Barzilai agrees. “[Starting CohBar] created the opportunity to take some of our most promising research and get it out there so it could do good for the public.”

Viewed in that light, the federal funding crunch can actually be considered a positive motivating factor for many basic researchers, Preminger suggests. “In many ways this is the silver lining of the NIH budget crises: more interaction between the real world and the academic lab these days.” 

Correction (May 4): In the original version of this story we misidentified the proteins that Evris Gavathiotis studies as PAX. In fact, Gavathiotis studies BAX proteins. The Scientist regrets the error.


Private funding opportunities are out there for the taking. You simply have to know where to look. Your own institution can be a big help in this regard, but you’ll likely need to do some poking around on your own. Here are some resources that may help:

Community of Science PIVOT funder database
This website lists all sorts of funding opportunities for biomedical research, including state, federal, and international grants. But it is an especially good place to find private funding opportunities. You must be a member to use the service, but many universities have institutional memberships that may grant you access.

State-based associations
Groups such as MassBIO, the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association, and NewYorkBIO often hold workshops and programs that are open to academics and can be great forums to make industry contacts and learn about specific topics, such as drug development, that could help you tailor your research program so it is more attractive to investors and commercial partners.

Offices of sponsored research
Most universities have offices that deal with providing faculty support and assistance in the administration of externally funded research. These offices will also send out announcements regarding foundation or philanthropic funding opportunities that are available. Getting on e-mail lists from these offices could prove invaluable.

Scientific conferences
Especially at big annual conferences, such as those hosted by the American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) or the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), potential funders are in attendance. Don’t shy away from attending industry talks, stopping by commercial booths on the convention floor, or fielding questions from industry folks after presentations to make contact and inquire about funding or partnership opportunities.

Philanthropic funding through your home institution
Many universities have philanthropic grants that are available only to their own academic researchers. Your office of sponsored research, or equivalent service, should be helpful in pointing you in the right direction.


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Avatar of: NirBarzilai


Posts: 1

May 2, 2015

Please note that the major scientific founders of CohBar Inc. are Prof. Hassy Cohen, the Dean Of USC Davis School of Gerontology, and me.

Avatar of: DNA box

DNA box

Posts: 3

May 12, 2015

This story leaves out some important context about its protagonist, David Sinclair.

Sinclair was the chief person behind the series of high-profile papers in the 2000s linking red wine, resveratrol, sirtuins and aging. During this period, Sinclair's work was repeatedly featured in the New York Times and he became a minor scientific celebrity. He founded a company, Sirtris, with the goal of making sirtuin activators to treat aging related diseases, and Sirtris was purchased by GSK in 2007 for the staggering sum of $720 million. This was despite the fact that the company had never shown that any of its compounds had activity in humans.

Shortly after the Sirtris sale, it began to emerge that the whole red wine/resveratrol/aging story was not true. It turned out that resveratrol and the compounds discovered by Sirtris were not sirtuin activators, as claimed by Sinclair in a series of Nature papers. Rather, the activity of the compounds was an artifact resulting from a poorly controlled biochemical essay.  Likewise, evidence emerged that sirtuins were not nearly as important for aging as Sinclair and others had claimed, and that several of the key biological results making this link, published by Sinclair and others in Science and Nature, were again not reproducible due to sloppy experimental design. Recently, Sirtris was shut down by GSK, and the consensus in the pharmaceutical industry is that their $720M Sirtris investment led to nothing of value. I have copied below a series of papers and other links that go into greater detail regarding this story.

This information provides a different context for the funding saga of David Sinclair recounted above. It is possible that Sinclair found it difficult to obtain NIH funding because his much-hyped work had been thoroughly discredited, such that NIH study sections decided (rightly) that it would be a mistake to give him any more money. In this context, the fact that Sinclair has nonetheless been able to find private backers so that he can again maintain a 22 person lab is remarkable. It suggests that there is a profound failure in the mechanisms by which we ensure accountability in academic science. By writing a story that fails to mention any of this, and in fact portrays Sinclair as the hero, the author Bob Grant is contributing to the problem.

Avatar of: Sandra Schulze

Sandra Schulze

Posts: 1

May 18, 2015

I have a question about research funding. What is it for? What do we, collectively, as an academic community want it to accomplish? Do we want money to go only to research labs with a reliable track record of translational research, whose work has been successfully parsed by biotech companies and clinical trials, with a quantifiable measure of success in terms of human and societal health outcomes? Labs that provide sustainable employment for a large population of superbly educated technicians, research scientists, post docs and administrators? In which case, grant funding can easily balloon into millions of dollars per year per lab, with complex joint partnerships involving industry and other huge labs, requiring of a newly minted research scientist a minor, perhaps, in business administration.  As one colleague of mine put it recently, the better you get at science, the less of it you get to do. Alas.

What about education? I teach at a predominantly undergraduate school. I landed an NIH grant, without which I am quite sure I would not have acquired tenure. I shepherded about twenty students through my lab, all undergraduates, without assistants, technicians, or post docs. All or most of them are in graduate school, biotech or med school. I published one paper, and could do no more, and thus fell off the Giant Wheel of Funding. My research will not directly translate into cures or palliatives or drug therapy. I can no longer get funding to get published to get funding. But I can train students, elbow to elbow, in my small lab, helping them to become valuable assets, those superbly trained technicians and research scientists whose livelihoods depend upon mega soft money. And I don’t need more than $10-$20K a year to do it. An NSF official once told me during a work shop: if the grant is under $100K, the science is not worth doing. What does that mean?

NIH and NSF do offer small grants. But not for my kind of work, which has no other function other than to train.  And they want publications of course. And preliminary data. Even when they specifically say they do not. So I ask again, what is funding for?  Do we only want big institutions doing research? Is that where things are headed? Currently I still do research, but only classical stuff that costs very little, and I post everything online. It is all I can do. I am lucky, I have my job, and I have great students. But is my kind of research not deserving of funding? Is small a dirty word now?

Avatar of: Paul Stein

Paul Stein

Posts: 237

May 18, 2015

While the article is informative, it falls into the let's-try-here genre.  These sources of funding are definitely not limitless and, oftentimes, quite focused.  In time, a short time, everyone will start to go there for funding, and so the chances of gaining any funds will be as low, or lower, than with the NIH.  For industrial folks, the SBIR's fall into this same realm.

Avatar of: MikeH


Posts: 16

Replied to a comment from Sandra Schulze made on May 18, 2015

May 19, 2015

I think it's been amply proven that translational research without basic research will fail to produce any benefits.  As for all the funding being concentrated at a few "successful" institutions (read large, politically powerful), that's self-fulfilling prophacy.  It's also been amply proven that concentrating activity in relatively few labs under a hand full of self-important elite destroys the diversity and serendipity responsible for the post-Sputnik knowledge boom.

Avatar of: MikeH


Posts: 16

Replied to a comment from Paul Stein made on May 18, 2015

May 19, 2015

What do you mean "in a short time"? I think that was five years ago.  Private institution funding has been highly competitive for awhile now.  The only point to the article is assuring conservatives that there isn't a problem with research funding since "the private sector" is handling everything, just as they predicted. It's utterly useless for the supposed target audience since labs lower down on the pecking order in what is by no means an objective meritocracy any more have been getting private funding for years, but no more.

Avatar of: MikeH


Posts: 16

May 19, 2015

Entirely too cynical for words.  "out there for the taking" as though no labs were being funded by private sources before the Harvard and Einstein labs this article was apparently written for suddenly discovered sequestration.  End result is that the few big name institutions are now sopping up all that funding as well, and even more researchers are forced to quit.  Where is the reward for "The Scientist" in writing this political cover for funding slashing?  I'm certain conservatives are overjoyed to see confirmation of what they knew all along, but how is a shrinking research community, and loss of Western leadership of biomed research, of benefit to science news publishing?

Avatar of: Irakli Loladze

Irakli Loladze

Posts: 6

June 8, 2015

chemist1 said "there is a profound failure in the mechanisms by which we ensure accountability in academic science."

Absolutely! The current award system for research is perverse and promotes irreproducible but flashy findings, which help secure the next round of awards.

Sandra Schulze makes a very good point. There is an army of dedicated workers in the research community that could make a meaningful contribution if awarded only $25K-50K funding. Yet, both the NIH and NSF are much more willing to give a $3 million grant to a “big shot” than award several $25K grants to “small fish.”

Is this justified? Let’s make an experiment. Instead of giving another $3 million grant to one “big shot” lab, give 120 (yes, one hundred twenty!) no-strings-attached grants of $25K to young researchers, post-docs, or even unemployed researchers.  Let us see what they can do with mere $25K. Some or even most of the 120 awards might produce no fruitful results, but some could produce high quality work that rivals the "big shot" lab results. We might get better return on-investment this way and we would unleash all the untapped skills, passion and curiosity of 120 researchers.

Now, here is an important part: those researchers that deliver reproducible quality work could be automatically eligible for larger amounts. Such system would encourage reproducibility and high quality output without wasting any time on grant writing.

Avatar of: stevenumbrello


Posts: 1

January 25, 2016

Thanks for taking the time to provide good coverage for the work of our research Fellow Dr. Nir Barilai. We're promoting your work at

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