In 1989, when Harvard University geneticist Rachael Neve sought funding to test her controversial hypothesis on Alzheimer's disease, her requests fell on deaf ears. "I had been writing a proposal to [the National Institutes of Health] for a year and a half, and it kept getting rejected," recalls Neve, who challenged the conventional wisdom in neuroscience with data indicating that the toxic protein responsible for Alzheimer's was some 60 amino acids longer than previously thought. "I applied to every organization involved in Alzheimer's research," she says. "I couldn't even get my papers published."

Neve then learned of the Focused Giving program offered by health-care giant Johnson & Johnson of New Brunswick, N.J., a 12- year-old initiative that supports basic research at universities to the tune of $2.5 million a year. J&J took a chance on Neve's hypothesis. The company supported her for three years and lent its expertise in setting...

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