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1907 Foundation: A new approach to funding research

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Adam Pieczonka, co-founder of 1907 Foduntation

1907 Foundation is a new nonprofit grantmaker for innovative mental health research that takes a unique approach to funding scientific research. 

1907 Foundation, a US-based mental health research funder, aims to support young researchers with bold ideas while undercutting dogma and reducing non-scientific bias in grant allocation. The charity invests exclusively in early-career scientists with risky, novel ideas that would be difficult to fund through traditional means.

Unlike other grantmakers, most of the charity’s review process is blind, meaning applicants’ demographic information is removed until the final stage of the selection process. 1907’s software is able to take the data from each application and strip out their name, institution and the applicant’s resume.

In a field where accolades, name recognition, past funding and university affiliation can play a significant role in the decision-making process, 1907 is removing these variables in an effort to make the process truly objective and based solely on the science.

“The best science wins, period,” Adam Pieczonka, co-founder of 1907 Foundation says.

“The whole process is identity blind, which is actually very uncommon. We’ve got 12 core scientists, research directors, and advisory board directors who do the grant review. They’ve been doing that for decades, but they’ve never seen a process work this way.

“I think everyone’s extremely excited by how fair our process was relative to other processes out there.”

1907 Foundation was launched as a corporate entity in 2018 before receiving charitable status in November the following year. In 2020, the charity ran its first award process, receiving over 150 applications from 69 research institutions. Only two were selected; Dr Benjamin Bartelle from Arizona State University and Dr Laura Lewis from Boston University both received grants valued at $120,000 each.

Dr Bartelle believes the Zika virus can be engineered to modify mechanisms in the brain’s immune system. If successful, the tool could alter inflammation often associated with severe depression, schizophrenia, and neurodegenerative disorders — something pharmaceutical companies have not yet been able to. Viruses are a method of delivering modified genes to cells, and are thought to be relevant for a range of mental illnesses.

Dr Lewis is an expert on the impact of sleep on mental health disorders. The award will enable her lab to pursue a novel idea for how neuroinflammation is regulated by sleep. Cerebrospinal fluid is a liquid that envelops the brain and is essential for maintaining brain health, as it can wash away inflammatory substances. Dr Lewis has developed a new imaging technique to measure cerebrospinal fluid flow in humans and will study it in patients with depression through brain MRIs in their sleep.

As well as being ‘identity blind, the grantmaker is also ‘symptom blind’, meaning applicants are open to apply for the grant regardless of the condition they are seeking to address. Applicants must be in the early stages of their career and propose a novel and disruptive idea that takes a functional approach rather than a symptomatic approach to mental health research. Rather than creating treatments, the 1907 Foundation is looking for research projects that can get to the root of the issues.

“We’re going after young scientists only, who are typically pre-tenure, so the risk-seeking behaviour is higher. They provide a novel idea that’s unbounded – we encourage risk [and] we encourage contrarian thinking. And we only will fund applications that deal with causes and cure.”

Although society as a whole has made huge strides in its understanding and acceptance of mental health in recent decades, Pieczonka believes there is still a long way to go. The only way to create solutions, he says, is to understand the brain, and that requires funding.

“If you think of this as a funding issue, and not just a medical issue, then you have to pay attention to the monetary flows. The whole approach is [about] bringing together scientists, investors and technologists to take a very rigorous, data-driven approach to funding early-career scientists for mental health.”

Pieczonka channelled his background in finance, lived experience and family trauma into the launch of the NGO. Pieczonka has lost several nuclear family members to mental illness.

“I have suffered myself, I know it very personally and the entire system, frankly, failed,” Pieczonka says. “I’ve had members of the family that were diagnosed with bipolar disorder […] they were taking a host of different medications and none of them ever worked.

“If we’re throwing darts, we might as well attempt to be more precise and figure out the underlying mechanisms. It’s a sad topic, but what’s exciting about it is [that] we have 80 billion-plus neurons; these neurons store memories, they interconnect and transmit data [and] this is a system which is understandable. It’s just about providing the capital and the resources and tools to get into that understanding.”

As the 1907 Foundation scales, Pieczonka and his team aim to partner up with other funds and foundations and open up its process so that scientists can have access to a number of different foundations through just one application.

“Because our CTO designed [and built] the software himself, we have the ability to customize it as needed to allow third parties to also have access to what we’re doing.”

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