Future of innovation at Wellcome

Ahead of the launch of Wellcome’s Innovation strategy later this year, Director of Innovation Stephen Caddick gives an update on the new approach and the implications for some of our existing funding schemes.  

SmartCane™ device, an affordable navigation aid enabling safe mobility for people with visual impairment.

Credit: Wellcome Trust

SmartCane™ device, an affordable navigation aid enabling safe mobility for people with visual impairment.

In my previous life as the enterprise lead for UCL, I had the privilege of supporting many great entrepreneurs and companies, and to set up a venture from my academic lab. I also saw many promising ideas founder because of a lack of early phase support and encouragement. I was therefore excited by the opportunity to take up the role as Director of Innovation for Wellcome, an organisation with a track record in helping people turn their discoveries into innovations that improve human health.

Over the past decade, Wellcome’s Innovations team has built an exceptional portfolio of translational projects, and earned a deserved reputation for helping scientists from around the world take those first challenging steps along the daunting road to commercialisation. Our role during this time has been as a gap funder, helping entrepreneurs in universities and companies to reach the stage where their products could be taken forward by other investors. 

It has proved a successful approach. To date we’ve supported the development of some 30 new products and helped a similar number reach the clinic. Devices, drugs and technologies we’ve funded are being used today by doctors and patients in India, Africa, South East Asia and here in the UK. It’s a privilege to have inherited such an impressive legacy.

We should be extremely proud of all we’ve achieved to date, and I think we can build on this to be even more ambitious. Since joining Wellcome, I’ve been working with colleagues inside and outside the organisation to develop a new strategy for Innovation – one that places a greater emphasis on long-term impact.

With so many successes under our belt, you could be forgiven for asking – why change? But the world of innovation has changed, and there are now many other gap funders – public funders, private investors and corporations – operating in the early translational space. Yet few of these organisations have the freedom to pursue innovation with the sole aim of improving lives. 

Wellcome is rare in that respect. Our financial independence gives us the freedom to take on problems others would find very challenging. We could do almost anything, but we can’t do everything. In future we will consider working earlier and later in the translation pathway, but we will focus on a much smaller number of themes where we think we can make a real difference. 

We recognise too that one of our great strengths is our flexibility, and we will retain the ability to advance ideas in a small number of activities outside those that fit with our priority themes. It’s an approach that aligns closely with Wellcome’s strategic framework, which we launched in 2015.

It’s still a work in progress. I hope to be able to share the full details of our new approach later in 2016, but in the meantime I wanted to give an update on some of the key elements of our new strategy ‘Innovation for Impact’:

  • Building better links between science, technology and innovation. We will remove barriers between these disciplines to make it easier to take the first translational step. We may play a more active role in supporting technology.
  • Creating a global community dedicated to innovation for impact. We will tap into our international network of companies, supporters and expert advisors to help encourage people from outside the life sciences to engage in biomedical research and innovation. 
  • Supporting the next generation of innovation leaders. We will work with emerging innovation leaders, giving them support and access to mentorship through interaction with our global network. We hope to encourage a greater diversity of career paths for scientists by helping them to engage in translation and innovation at an earlier stage in their career. 

Our new direction inevitably means making some changes to our existing funding schemes, which will transition to the new approach over the next 9 to 12 months. We will do all we can during this time to minimise disruption for our grantholders and new applicants, and I’m confident that, once up and running, our approach will allow us to make decisions more quickly than we have done before.

With our new strategy in place, our primary purpose remains unchanged. We will continue to work with talented people from around the world to transform great ideas, discoveries and inventions into preventions, treatments and cures for disease. We cannot achieve any of our aims on our own. We’ll still need your time, energy, advice and commitment so that together we can achieve innovation for impact - to improve people’s lives. We’re grateful to all those who have supported us to date, and look forward to the next exciting chapter.