Social entrepreneurship has attracted scholarship, media attention, and financial resources over the last decade. Social and professional networks have emerged from this discipline. Medical research has been largely missing from the dialogue and the discipline, even as it seeks to address a market failure no less important than other social enterprises – the development of therapies that cure disease and alleviate suffering.
More than 30 senior leaders from organizations that fund medical research and those from the broader sphere of social entrepreneurship convened a week ago at what has become an annual leadership forum on medical research innovation brought together by FasterCures and Esquire magazine. The meeting explored what lessons have been learned by social entrepreneurs that might be applied by those pursuing what FasterCures calls "cure entrepreneurship," or novel approaches to accelerating the process of treating and curing disease.
Much of the discussion during the day centered on the need for better information flows about what work is being done, by whom, and its quality; the need for better communication about why new approaches are needed and the promise they hold; and the need for nonprofits to find creative ways to leverage their relatively small funds into larger investments into new therapies. There was also a common focus on the centrality of patients and the transformative nature of empowering them to play a greater role in research.
The social entrepreneurs and cure entrepreneurs in the room found a lot of common ground. In part because both distinct sectors function in a similar nonprofit space where success is often the result of effectively leveraging the assets that it creates. It was noted however that the social business model is difficult to achieve in medical research because of its cost implications. Throughout the day, participants alluded to the need for unconventional solutions, unusual channels to reach nontraditional audiences, outcomes-focused collaborative efforts, and ideas that could be acted on in real-time by the right people.
Perhaps the meeting’s location, set in a swank, Architectural Digest-ready mansion in Hollywood Hills triggered the right brain to yield more inspirational ideas. Perhaps it was the collective braintrust in the room that stimulated an engaged energy and infused thoughtful intrigue that are often absent in more typical conferences. Greg Simon, FasterCures’ president aptly set the tone when he said in his welcome remarks that “we do not need to go somewhere, we just need to be somewhere…”
Indeed, we were somewhere. It was a place where we tried to create an intersection between social entrepreneurship and medical research philanthropy – an ecosystem to support the work of cure entrepreneurs. It was a place where ideas reigned and the seemingly impossible task of challenging our biomedical research system to produce results was not a far-fetched goal. The meeting reinforced the unique role that FasterCures can play in helping to build a "knowledge commons" to accelerate medical research – whether that is collection of the best organizational practices of TRAIN groups, or continued work on the Philanthropy Advisory Service to make transparent information about the most effective medical research foundations, or perhaps an entirely new project to escrow vetted but unfunded proposals from funders. Additionally, meeting attendees urged FasterCures to focus on the idea that philanthropy is a whole new capital market in need of rules and auditable facts.
As the context we all are a part of changes dramatically by the day, last week’s meeting was a place to start, an opportunity to put some markers on important work that needs to continue if we, as a nation, are serious not just about reforming our broken healthcare system, but also about fixing our broken health cures system.
Common Knowledge's The Unknowns by John Wilbanks