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Investment interview: Kathy Gibson, the Innovation Seed Fund



A new fund launched last week to finance early-stage concepts in biopharma and healthcare.

It was founded by Pistoia Alliance, a not-for-profit organisation that works to lower the barriers to innovation in life sciences and healthcare R&D.

It aims to fund three to four new projects per year into research, prototypes, and proof of concepts (POC), lowering the risks of innovation for all stakeholders while accelerating pre-competitive collaboration in R&D.

The fund is led by Kathy Gibson, innovation and investment advisor at Pistoia Alliance.

Gibson spent the majority of her career at Pfizer running informatics for its worldwide research organisations. In 2000 she was part of the team that set up an innovation incubator for drug discovery in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Following a year out from work to travel North America in a campervan, Gibson set up her own company in healthcare innovation and later spent five years at CAS as its chief innovation officer before joining Pistoia Alliance.

Health Tech World spoke with Gibson to learn more about the fund.

Could you introduce the fund to our readers?

The fund is a grant more than anything. What we want to do with this fund is to de-risk and promote pre-competitive innovation and experimentation. There is a gap in the healthcare sector for this kind of funding.

It isn’t a project fund, so we’re not funding a concept all the way to market launch. Instead, we aim to fund three to four projects a year to a proof of concept.

The money comes from Pistoia’s membership funds. As we’re new, we’re starting out small so we will typically fund a proof of concept at about 50,000 US dollars.

We also see the fund as an opportunity to raise the visibility of pre-competitive collaboration in life sciences and healthcare.

Part of this is elevating the profile of innovators who are advancing science. We want their ideas, but we also want to use their knowledge and their experience and share that more broadly so that others can benefit from it.

Who is the fund for?

We put the fund together for both large and small organisations.

if you’re a big company like Pfizer, who I used to work for, there are a lot of rules about what the company will do and won’t do with its innovation fund. Typically, the things that we would do internally with innovation are things that were very competitive and would advance our competitive position in the market.

The Pistoia Alliance is all about pre-competitive collaboration; finding things that we can do together to advance science to take some of the costs out and to speed things up. But sometimes, companies won’t fund that internally.

We put the fund together so that any member organisation could submit a request for funding.

We also put the fund together for small organisations that have really great, innovative ideas but don’t have the funding to pursue them.

A principal advantage of funding the small innovative organisation is oftentimes they have amazing ideas and we want to get those ideas and those innovative ideas also in front of our members.

What does the process look like for an organisation that applies to the fund?

I will have a conversation with the organisation before sending the grant proposal.

The proposal form is lightweight and allows them to articulate the value proposition of the grant, what the purpose is and how it would benefit them pre-competitively.

I’m not here to make it hard; I’m here to make it easy, so oftentimes, depending on how experienced they are, I might hold their hand through it if they need the support.

Once we receive the proposal, there is an internal team of people that will look at them against the criteria. Given that, we will fund the ones that hit that criteria the highest.

Once they have been funded, we will generally provide a project manager to help them. We will also provide them with mentorship to help them move things along and we will provide them the opportunity to share their idea and the outcome of the work with the broader community.

Big pharma, healthcare organisations and other vendors will have an opportunity to hear the pitch once it has gone through the process, which gives people great visibility.

What are you looking for in a proposal?

I’m looking for proposals that are focused on advancing pre-competitive collaboration, so something that multiple members can utilise.

I’m looking for things that support one of our four strategic themes.

One is the empowered patient, so putting the patient front and centre. Another theme is emerging science and technology, so taking emerging science and tech, like blockchain and AI, and finding a practical way of focusing a project on that that benefits the membership.

Then we have another one that we call ‘lowering the barriers to R&D productivity’. This is focused on research and development operations; how can we make healthcare research happen faster, better and cheaper.

The final one is data standards. Healthcare is very data-centric; if we have standards that everyone can adhere to, it makes it easier to share data and again, makes things happen better, faster and cheaper.

What’s a typical example of the proposals you’ve received?

The proposals we’re getting are not just for pharmaceutical projects; they cover a broad range of the healthcare ecosystem.

There is an organisation called The Cure Parkinson’s Trust in the UK.

It wants to work with pharmaceutical companies, who are often the funders of clinical trials, to design more patient-centric clinical trials; something that has the patient front and centre and allows the patient to have more control over their health.

The idea is to have people who are on the service side of the patients partnering with the people who are designing clinical trials; acting more like a cohort.

Are there any sub-sectors that you are particularly interested in?

One sector that is compelling to me is AI and how we can make AI less of a black box for the industry.

As a sector, we’re a little behind other industries in our ability to really leverage AI.

If you think about banking or retail, they really exploit AI and have been doing so for a number of years. It’s a little more challenging in healthcare, in part due to a lack of trust. If people don’t understand what went into an algorithm, they’re not going to be confident in the outcome.

I’m interested in finding ways to make AI more transparent and ways the industry can better share and understand AI.

We’re also interested in core R&D laboratory functions, which are often time-consuming and expensive, so we’re looking for ways to reduce the costs, using the likes of robotics, AI and automation.

What advice would you give to an early-stage company considering submitting a proposal?

Don’t be shy. Healthcare is ripe for innovation and we are taking some of the risk out of it.

If your concept doesn’t work out, we don’t see that as a failure, we see it as something we can learn from and means we may be able to prevent another organisation from going down the same path.

I would say be bold, be unafraid and come to me with your best ideas.

To pitch your idea, you can contact Kathy Gibson via [email protected].

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