Lucas Laursen

Nature 486, 559-561 (2012) doi:10.1038/nj7404-559a

Published online 27 June 2012

This article was originally published in the journal Nature

Some consultants offer to help researchers to find and secure grants. But scientists should carefully consider whether and how a consultant is worth the time and expense.

Read article online

The e-mails were arriving in Pete Kissinger’s inbox almost every day: “TODAY ONLY: Extra 25% Off … Craft your R01 Grants Management … Only 1 Day Left.” They were from consultants trying to charge him to do something that scientists have long done for themselves: search for research-grant opportunities, write proposals and, in some cases, manage the grant once it has been won. Eventually, Kissinger’s curiosity got the better of him.

Having founded his first company in the 1970s, Kissinger, an entrepreneur and bioanalytical chemist who works part-time at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, is no stranger to the challenges of raising start-up capital and research money. But he says that it is harder to get funding now than when he began. For one thing, the paperwork is more onerous. “And that’s not really the thing most of us in science enjoy doing,” he says. So about 18 months ago, when he needed money to develop a device for sampling blood to speed up clinical diagnoses, Kissinger hired FreeMind, a funding consultancy with offices in Boston, Massachusetts, and in Jerusalem. He is waiting for decisions on two applications that he made last year with their help, and on another that was put together in March.

Types of funding finder range from services offering online information packs that cost a few hundred dollars to consulting firms such as FreeMind, which can charge up to 10% of the grant total. In return, they offer familiarity with the applications process and established relationships with the programme officers and businesses that are offering the funds. Nothing stops a scientist from going directly to the US National Science Foundation for funding information, notes Ram May-Ron, vice-president of FreeMind. “We don’t claim to have any special powers, but we have lots of experience.”

Consultants say that they can help to highlight and emphasize the aspects of a proposal that increase the chances of funding. “It’s not just about how you raise money, it’s about how to direct what you’re doing in a fashion that will extract the social, medical and financial value of it,” says Mark Goldstein, chief scientific officer of MammaCare, a medical-device firm based in Gainesville, Florida. Goldstein has worked with Kirk Macolini, a funding finder at Centurion Technologies in Ithaca, New York, for more than 10 years.

Making the most of that help means knowing when to seek assistance, whom to ask for it and how to work well with a consultant.

Reaching out

The emergence of funding finders reflects the growing specialization and competition in science. Just as postdocs and technicians handle the nitty-gritty of experiments so that principal investigators can concentrate on guiding their laboratory’s research, some lab leaders are also seeking help with finding, winning and maintaining funding. “The nice thing is he does it all, from soup to nuts. It’s free and clear of my office,” says Ajit Varki, a glycobiologist at the University of California, San Diego, who hired Macolini to help him to get funding for a pharmaceutical start-up now called Sialix, based in Vista, California.

But hiring a funding finder itself requires careful planning. Researchers must consider how they will work with the consultant and other project collaborators to make the most of the time invested in the grant application. It helps to understand that funding finders cannot do all the work themselves. “If somebody drops an idea in our lap and says, ‘Write a proposal’, it would be quite difficult,” says Ian Eden, a senior consultant at Arttic in Derby, UK. “We work with them, not on our own.” Researchers need to set aside time to discuss their goals, answer technical questions about their research, evaluate suggestions from the consultant and produce and execute a strategy based on those discussions.

However, young researchers should begin by seeking funding advice from their home institutions, says Alan Rebar, executive director of Discovery Park, a research-coordination centre at Purdue that organizes networking events with other grant seekers. Universities often skim off a percentage of their researchers’ grants for overhead costs and devote administrative resources to helping scientists seek funding, so they usually prefer researchers to seek help internally, and may even prohibit them from using university funds to pay outsiders. The situation can become complicated, however, when researchers want to transfer their research from the academic to the commercial sector. “I can’t use university resources to do an outside business application,” says Kissinger.

Funding finders all say that their clients have higher success rates on average than scientists acting alone, although such claims are impossible to verify. The US National Institutes of Health reports that 11% of applications to the first round of its Small Business Innovation Research grants, which aim to help small businesses to commercialize research results, are successful. May-Ron says that 30–40% of his clients’ applications for those grants are successful.

In addition to proposal-writing help, some firms offer networking tips and strategic guidance. Gonzalo de Silva, a consultant at the Euro-Funding Advisory Group in Madrid, notes that to be eligible for many European grants, research teams must include scientists in different countries as well as an industry partner; funding finders can help to make connections between potential collaborators. “That’s where we add the most value, because we have a lot of contacts with businesses and experience,” says de Silva.

Funding consultants tend to deal repeatedly with the same contacts in business and at funding bodies, so they can build up an understanding of what such people are looking for. “If you have absolutely no clue as to what the interest of the programme officers is, then you really have no chance,” says May-Ron. “We try to close this gap through conversations with programme officers and researchers.” By talking to programme officers about a project idea before submitting the proposal, he explains, a consultant might learn that the funder puts increased value on certain components of the application. “So we tell the scientist to focus on those,” says May-Ron.

In other cases, programme officers might mention that they are about to open a call for proposals, giving the consultant time to alert a client. The applicant could get such information for free by contacting a programme officer directly, but making dozens of requests to keep on top of all opportunities would be very time-consuming. And consultants can get to know a programme officer’s preferences and interests. May-Ron recalls a case where one programme officer encouraged one of his clients, an influenza researcher, to submit a proposal in response to a call with guidelines that did not actually specify influenza research as a candidate area. The researcher won the award.

The right choice

Once scientists are convinced that they or their projects would benefit from external consultancy, they have to choose a firm. Universities sometimes contact grant consultants to supplement their in-house staff, notes Rebar, so researchers might be able to get a list of contacts. Or they could do some digging for themselves: Goldstein found Macolini through an Internet search.

The size of a potential project will make a difference to the type of consultancy the researcher should approach. Arttic, like many large firms, won’t work on grants smaller than about £10 million (US$13 million), says Eden, and its fee is 5–7% of the grant money.

Macolini’s fees include an upfront project charge and a percentage-based success fee, with the proportions varying from project to project. This creates a higher initial cost for the researcher than does a contingency fee alone, but consultants argue that it helps to prevent researchers sending them half-baked ideas just because they have nothing to lose when the grants don’t materialize.

Researchers can ask for references from consultants’ previous clients, but should treat them with caution. “The scientist has to evaluate the record of the consultants,” says de Silva. There are no obvious ways of comparing one company’s claimed success rate with another’s, because they have no reporting requirements and different scientific disciplines have different funding constraints, which could affect success. However, it is possible to compare companies’ years of experience and the number of grants they have facilitated, as well as the types of grants and collaborations.

Goldstein says he chose Macolini because he had a history of helping “really bright” research teams, an apparently sincere interest in the project and a willingness to offer criticism. It is particularly important to make sure that the scientist’s and the consultant’s aims are compatible, because one project may lead to another. “You need someone to tell you when you’re barking up the wrong tree,” says Goldstein.

Making the most of it

The more information researchers share, the more likely the consultants are to be able to find funding for the project — or improve the odds of winning a grant. “We try to fully understand their project and regroup and rearrange them to reflect what funding sources would expect to see,” says May-Ron. That could mean recommending that a researcher restrict an application to one avenue of research and hold off on another. Or it could mean bringing in components from other disciplines to strengthen a proposal.

The consultant runs through multiple drafts and revisions of the proposal in cooperation with the investigator, boiling down the content until it is simple, succinct and a good match for the ideas of the programme officers. “It’s really easy to submit a long proposal. It’s much harder to write a short one,” says Kissinger. External reminders make it easier to hit goals, he adds: “They help find opportunities, keep you on track with the format and make you remember deadlines.” In addition to the technical help, says Goldstein, good funding finders offer strategic advice. During brainstorming sessions, Macolini asks business-type questions such as how long it will take to explore an idea and what the client will do next with it. The ability to do that comes from “having a leg in each field”, says Goldstein.

It is still too early for Kissinger to know whether his funding-finding gamble will pay off. But at least his inbox is now overflowing not with marketing e-mails, but with tailored messages from his own consultant.

 

Non dilutive R&D funding – mainly multibillion programs of Federal agencies – has become a major player in the life science finance industry. Today more than ever, NIH, DOD, NSF, CDC and dozens of other agencies, both federal and private, support biological and medical preclinical and clinical activities in all fields and scopes of research and development. Funds for individual projects range from <$150K for early stage research, through $1-2M for standard hypothesis-driven and product development grants, to large scale funding opportunities of up to $100M and more. The estimated total annual budget allocated for such funding opportunities is over $60B. Each year, these funding agencies release hundreds of solicitations, requesting applications in areas that address topics of importance to public health. In addition, most funds are granted to investigator-initiated, unsolicited research.

Grants and contracts have thus become a conceivable and often preferred option for translational research, product development, pipeline broadening, industry-academia collaborations, clinical trials and more. Their importance makes them a strategic source of funding for startup and mature companies, and even leading pharmaceutical companies. Accordingly, given the increased demand for such funds, a need for a professional and methodological approach that will allow every company to maximize its funding potential has arisen.

FreeMind Group, with its over 14 years of experience, highly motivated, skilled team, can help you make the most of this substantial opportunity. Our team helps you devise and execute a long term strategy to consolidate your research goals into distinct, focused projects and find the most appropriate opportunities to maximize your funding potential.

Over the past decade, the United States government has allocated nearly $55 billion on preparing the nation against biological threats. The Obama administration has maintained that momentum with a total biodefense budget of $6.05 billion for FY2012, going primarily to the NIH and DOD. Additional civilian biodefense funds have been budgeted to the DHS, USDA, EPA, NSF and Department of State.

Due to the focused interests and needs of the funding agencies and the complex nature of solutions in that arena, biodefense submission processes are highly demanding. FreeMind’s team is frequently invited to work closely with companies and research organizations that are either dedicated to biodefense or those who have more widely ranging research, with individual applications that may be relevant to the biodefense community. We have supported the submission of successful grant and contract applications, covering projects of basic research up to product development. These applications also, included late stage clinical research leading to later to procurement deals with the agencies that originally funded the research activity.

FreeMind has been particularly successful in submitting and winning biodefense grants and contracts. Whereas the biodefense budget represents 0.5% of the HHS annual budget, FreeMind has submitted applications for at least ten times that proportion in recent years for diagnostics and therapeutics for Ebola, Marburg, Anthrax, Botulism, and a wide range of pathogens that have a widespread epidemic potential through either accidental or intentional contamination. Our clients were awarded over $270 million for such projects (2005-2012).

One of the most common misperceptions relating to non-dilutive funding for life science R&D is that the SBIR/STTR program is the main and even only funding resource available for the life science industry. Companies and investors alike must know that although it is an important and sometimes relevant program, the SBIR/STTR program is a small, limited and limiting program. Also, it must be emphasized that programs thought to be focused solely on academic research (such as RO1, R21 and UO1) are open to all applicants, industry and academia alike; in fact the number of awarded industry R01 is increasing steadily every year.

The Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program is a set-aside program for domestic small business concerns to engage in Research/Research and Development (R/R&D) with commercial potential. The STTR program was established by the Small Business Technology Transfer Act of 1992. Federal agencies with extramural R&D budgets over $1 billion are required to administer STTR programs using an annual set-aside of 0.30%. Under the newly approved regulation (2010), SBIR funding has increased from $100K to $150K for an SBIR Phase I award; and from $750K to $1M for an SBIR Phase II award. Companies that are willing to apply to those mechanisms should take into account alternative sources of funding that might be more significant.

Writing proposals for Federal grants is a time consuming task that requires much planning and administration. This process typically takes 3-6 weeks to complete for a standard high quality application; more complex applications may take longer. However, the brief periods often allotted between release of a funding opportunity announcement and its deadline, as well as limited availability of research partners, may severely restrict the ideal timeframe.

When the deadline is rapidly approaching, an experienced team that is well prepared with a streamlined approach for submission can make this process flow smoothly. FreeMind’s experienced, methodological and highly motivated professional team have helped dozens of companies and academic groups to submit on time (and win) large scale applications in a process that started 14, 10, and even 7 days before the deadline.

Our templates structure the writing in such a way that the presentation is made easy, saving you the time of planning the structure. All that is left for you to do is to pour the scientific content into the pre-made mold. Our primary goal is not saving time but winning the award, nevertheless we are regularly able to significantly reduce the time allocated by our clients, and focus their attention to the scientific aspects of the application alone. We optimize the scientific presentation and structure, assist in finalizing the budget and all administrative cores, plan and complete flow of information aspects and finalize the compilation of the package and reduce the load of some of the more technical items.

We would, of course, prefer to have the time to complete a thorough and detail oriented application, and to perfect the application. For that purpose we would recommend an earlier start rather than a later one. However, if time does not allow the more optimal writing timeline, we will allocate as many individuals as necessary to complete the best quality application in the time available.

 

As life science research is becoming more complicated, requiring collaborative activity and significant resources, funding agencies, such as NIH and DOD, have shifted significant portions of their budgets towards supporting large scale, multi-project clinical activities of both academic institutions and companies. The funding agencies put forth great effort in creating and allocating budgets to programs and mechanisms that allow implementation of such scientific work. These include RFPs, U19s, grants and contracts solicited through Roadmap programs, and other opportunities, with fund proposals for over $5M. Such large scale solicitations fund advanced clinical trials, construction projects, product development, building centers of excellence, and more. In addition, in recent years, virtually all funding institutes within NIH allow for large scale projects to be submitted through the main unsolicited (investigator initiated) route, pending a brief institutional pre-approval process.

Being multi-project in nature, such applications require multidisciplinary collaborations with multiple laboratories and organizations, often bringing together academic and industry partners, and numerous commercial subcontractors. As such, creating an application can be a particularly daunting task, requiring a great deal of coordination between all partners, and skilled and experienced project management focus in order to integrate the scientific and technical sections for a single and coherent presentation. In addition, such large scale applications require submission of large and complex budgets for which detailed justifications must be added to complement the specific scientific and research plan presented. Lastly, these programs define very specific regulations that must be followed. The brief periods typically allotted between the dates of publication and submission add another source of pressure.

FreeMind’s team is particularly adept at large scale funding opportunities. We take it upon ourselves to devise a timeline for completion of the project, coordinate the specific tasks among all partners and collect all relevant scientific and technical sections in a timely manner. We ensure that all the components are integrated into a cohesive, focused, and competitive proposal. We follow the submission and post submission processes, and aid the clients in any negotiations that are necessary to get the award. Our expert consultants, analysts, managers and writers have extensive experience allowing them to identify the weakness, scientific or administrative, and strengthen them to produce a competitive and winning application.

FreeMind sustains a growing network of leading companies and organizations, all with a strong and common interest in assisting the life science market and creating a common ground and collaborative framework for academia-industry collaborations.
Our extensive and intimate understanding of the market, coupled with our designated knowledge of non dilutive funding sources and their promotion to a strategic position with many companies and investors a like, offers a great network that serves both our clients and partners. FreeMind is a leading tool for top tier service providers within the life science market that are willing to expand their services or to benefit their clients. FreeMind’s collaborative efforts with its partners include educational activities such as presentations, workshops, webinars, round tables and financial benefits to their clients.

Non dilutive funding is available for every conceivable kind of research or development effort, whether it is an academic or industry project. Government agencies, as well as state organizations and private foundations, release daily hundreds of different solicitations covering topics that are of interest to public health and medical and life science research. Although these are just a small portion of the total number of awards granted annually by NIH, DOD and other such organizations, they represent a great funding opportunity for researchers within industry and academia. A greater number of awards are granted to unsolicited investigator initiated projects, focusing on virtually every field and every stage of research and product development. Research funded covers all ranges of scientific endeavors, from basic science, whose applications are not yet known, to product-oriented and translational research, clinical trials, training grants, and construction projects to provide facilities for research and medical care.

Funding agencies cover very small to very large scopes of projects. The NIH has mechanisms to fund exploratory research, where only an initial direction is being investigated to see if it’s worth pursuing. These are typically of short duration and a more limited budget. Standard R01 grants are geared towards research in progress, driven by a hypothesis and supported by strong preliminary data. These projects typically last up to 5 years, with a budget of $1-3M. It is important to stress and clarify that ALL entities are eligible for funding from such sources and are eligible to receive such awards, including for-profit companies, foreign entities and academic research organizations. In addition to these, American small businesses are also eligible for SBIR and STTR grants, geared towards development of products with commercial potential. Large scale grants and contracts offer sizable sources of funding of greater than $5M to cover large scale clinical trials, major construction projects and more.

FreeMind Group helps researchers in every field, every stage, and every scope of biomedical research and development, and for all research entities, academic and industry alike. In many cases, a process that started in an early pre-clinical stage application and award has then grown to clinical stages awards.

Over the last decade, many academic institutions established specialized centers that articulate their expertise in specific fields. These centers have the advantage of highly specialized human and physical resources. By virtue of their specifically defined purpose, they bring together the top experts in the field, working in proximity to each other for mutually beneficial and especially productive research.

In order to cultivate their centers, academic institutions must confirm that centers and their researchers are adopting a strategic approach towards non dilutive funding. That approach must take into account the center mission, resources, challenges and the changing funding atmosphere in order to be able to identify all of the relevant funding opportunities, both solicited and unsolicited and make the most of these opportunities to maximize the level of funding brought to the center and the institute at large.

FreeMind, through its experience working with academic and other large research institutes is particularly poised to work with academic centers as a whole or with any of their constituent laboratories, in order to secure funding for the specialized research that is conducted. We work with the administration to devise a strategic plan that incorporates a global view of the center and its special needs. We then assist with the compilation of all grants and contracts, including center grants, construction contracts and other applications to secure funding for establishing the center’s infrastructure and research capabilities. And as with any other researcher, we work with the center’s scientists on an individual basis to obtain funding for their laboratories