When traditional funding sources don’t cut it, the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre’s Innovation Initiative – a Dragons’ Den-style funding committee – provides a nimble, forward-looking alternative to accelerating groundbreaking research.
Ten years ago, University Health Network’s Peter Munk Cardiac Centre Medical Director and Chair, Dr. Barry Rubin, had a revolutionary idea. Instead of funding research projects that were likely to succeed, why not give money to some of the riskier ones that hold a lot of promise, but may ultimately fail?
These kinds of projects are high-risk, high-reward with less of a guarantee, but are also the kinds of projects that would push cardiac medicine into the future, potentially having a huge, positive impact on patient lives.
Out of this idea, the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre Innovation Initiative was born.
16The number of members in the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre’s Innovation Initiative, a committee of medical and business leaders deciding on which innovative projects receive philanthropic funding.
A unique recipe for success
The Peter Munk Cardiac Centre Innovation Initiative is a funding committee that operates much like the TV show Dragons’ Den, but instead of entrepreneurs pitching products, researchers pitch their innovative project ideas to a panel of medical and business leaders. And instead of the funds coming from venture capitalists, funding for the Innovation Initiative comes from philanthropic donations.
“The composition of the committee and the way it operates has made a large difference in both the scope and the impact the funding has had,” says Dr. Harry Rakowski, a cardiologist at the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and the committee’s chair.
“The skill set amongst the committee members is vast.”Dr. Harry Rakowski
The committee consists of 16 individuals, each bringing their own unique skills and expertise to evaluating the proposals. “The skill set amongst the committee members is vast,” Dr. Rakowski says. “We have people in private equity that understand business development, decision-making and mentorship. We also have a group of people who represent the different aspects of cardiovascular medicine – doctors and nurses from cardiology and vascular surgery, and those who have led clinical trials or created new medical technology.”
The value of having these different perspectives is that it allows the committee to answer the key question: Is the project innovative?
Jeff Rubenstein, CEO of global food trading company Export Packers, is one of the business leaders on the committee. Evaluating the business potential of a project is part of his role but he says, “It’s not just about return on investment, it’s about saving more lives and making quality of life better for patients.”
72The number of projects the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre’s Innovation Initiative has funded since its inception in 2012.
“The goal is to foster success, which isn’t always the case with traditional funding.”Dr. Harry Rakowski
As well as who’s evaluating the proposals, how they are evaluated is also unique. Instead of simply accepting or rejecting a proposal, the committee will provide constructive criticism on how to improve the project. “It might mean narrowing the scope to increase the likelihood of getting a positive result, or making the expenditure more efficient to get a bigger bang for buck,” Dr. Rakowski explains.
“The goal is to foster success, which isn’t always the case with traditional funding,” he says.
A cut above the traditional
The initiative is a far cry from the usual process of securing research funding. Typically, project leaders would develop a research proposal, run an initial pilot trial and publish the results, then apply for a large grant from the government. The process is time-consuming and it may take years for a project to get off the ground.
What’s more, traditional research funding routes tend to give money to projects or ideas that are already established, rather than true innovations. That means a potentially groundbreaking proposal has trouble getting over the initial hurdle between idea and testing.
$250,000The amount of philanthropic seed money Dr. Patrick Lawler and his team received from the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre’s Innovation committee to propel the heparin trial project forward.
Instead, the Innovation Initiative is nimble, future-focused and willing to take a chance on research at the forefront of discovery.
A smart trial for smart care
One project that received rapid funding through this initiative was trialing the drug heparin – a widely available, anti-clotting, anti-inflammatory drug – for COVID-19 patients.
Peter Munk Cardiac Centre cardiologist Dr. Patrick Lawler and his colleagues discovered that full doses of heparin could significantly decrease the likelihood of non-critically ill COVID-19 patients being admitted into the ICU. This local discovery gave clinicians worldwide a new tool to care for people with the disease, at a time when few treatment options were available.
But the design of the trial itself was novel too. The “smart trial” design, as Dr. Lawler calls it, allowed the makeup of the trial to change as it went along, based on which treatments were working most effectively for which patients. The adaptable and efficient nature of the trial could set a new standard for how medical trials are run in the future.
Dr. Lawler says the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre’s Innovation Initiative was instrumental in securing the initial funding boost that he could later leverage to continue and expand the trial. “Without the initial funding, the plane never gets off the ground.”
Translating to patient care
Ultimately, it all comes down to providing some of the best patient care in the world. Jeff says, “The Peter Munk Cardiac Centre is in the top two or three cardiac hospitals in the world. You hear a story where the person who had two days to live and then received treatment and can now live another five or ten years. There are many, many instances of this.”
“It’s not just about return on investment, it’s about saving more lives and making quality of life better for patients.”Jeff Rubenstein
In fact, part of the reason Jeff joined the committee and why he’s a longstanding donor is seeing the benefits of world-leading patient care firsthand. His father was a patient and Jeff was able to tour the Peter Munk Cardiac Centre and see the latest technology and techniques surgeons used. “When I saw what they could do to save my father’s life I was really interested in trying to help other people,” he says. “In order to maintain that level, philanthropy helps fund projects that the government won’t fund,” Jeff adds.
Looking towards the future
Going forward, the goal of the Innovation Committee is to find collaborators and mentors who can help applicants take a good idea and transform it into a proposal with sound science. “We want [to] work with investigators to come up with projects that can help create medicine of the future,” says Dr. Rakowski.
Both Dr. Rakowski and Jeff agree that technology will play a large role in that future – whether it be for remotely monitoring patients, using artificial intelligence to help doctors analyze imaging or better predict patient outcomes, or using stem cells to grow muscle that could be used to repair damaged hearts.
“There was the need for a funding source for things where there was a significant risk of failing because failing is an important aspect of discovery,” says Dr. Rakowski. “If you don’t fail in discovery you haven’t really tested the limits of how to be innovative.”