Wellcome launches £250m Leap Fund to place big bets on bold research

Wellcome is to launch a new £250m fund that will place big bets on ambitious research programmes with the potential to fundamentally change science or transform health over a five- to ten-year horizon.

The Wellcome Leap Fund will support scientists, technologists and innovators from around the world to pursue bold ideas that would fall outside the remit of conventional life sciences funding. This is because they are deemed too high risk, need to overcome a major scientific or technical hurdle to turn a theoretical goal into reality, or because the individual does not have an academic background in the life sciences.  

The not-for-profit Leap Fund draws inspiration from the technology and venture capital industries – taking on early stage, high-risk ideas and funding at scale – and applies these principles to charitable programme investments in the health and life sciences.

It will back unconventional ideas and bring together outstanding individuals from a range of disciplines and sectors, anywhere in the world, to work in parallel and solve problems differently. The Wellcome Leap Fund aims to deliver breakthroughs as transformative as the development of nanopore genome sequencing or cryo-electron microscopy, but on a vastly accelerated timescale.

The Leap Fund will broaden Wellcome’s overall charitable activity, which already provides more than £1bn a year to support science, research, innovation and public engagement around the world.

The fund will be led by a CEO who will decide which ideas to back and will set the level of ambition and risk. They will have the autonomy to shape the portfolio and reallocate funds as needed to take advantage of the most promising programmes or opportunities as they arise.

If successful, by 2030 the Wellcome Leap Fund will have produced a small number of breakthroughs that open up entirely new areas of research, allow new scientific questions to be answered, change existing practice within a field or deliver transformative health benefits.

Wellcome Director Jeremy Farrar said: "Blue skies, curiosity-driven research is the bedrock of every major scientific and technological breakthrough of the past 100 years. It’s essential to the process of innovation.

"But many scientists have ambitious, potentially transformational ideas that don’t fit the standard funding model. They require unconventional and disruptive thinking, backed by funders with the scale and risk appetite to make big bets on something they know may not succeed, but would be transformational if it did. As an independent charitable foundation, Wellcome is well placed to enter this space and to deliver significant leaps in progress, by taking a long-term view and providing the freedom to pursue a bold vision at scale and speed."

The intention is to establish the Wellcome Leap Fund as a wholly owned, charitable subsidiary of Wellcome, governed by an independent board. This structure will allow it to draw on the extensive depth of experience and networks that Wellcome has in the health and life sciences, whilst giving the CEO the freedom to act in the agile, risk-taking way needed to succeed.

It is anticipated that the search for a CEO will begin shortly and, once recruited, that the first research programmes will begin in late 2020. The £250m allocated to the Leap Fund over five years will account for about 5% of Wellcome’s total spending over that period.

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