The billions keep piling up for many of America's 'great philanthropists'

Philanthropy drives competition and collaboration

Image credit: Dreamstime

When the world needs technological breakthroughs to resolve the biggest challenges, from pandemics to climate change, philanthropic-backed projects often lead the way. But philanthropy operates in many ways – should it thrive on competition or collaboration?

“Labour, capital, and ability are a three-legged stool... They are equal members of the great triple alliance which moves the industrial world,” said famous philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who was the wealthiest man in the world at the beginning of the 20th century.

He established the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1911 dedicated to the principles of ‘scientific philanthropy’, but now his do-gooding baton has been passed to other billionaire entrepreneurs who might agree with Carnegie’s notion that “the man who dies thus rich dies disgraced”. This new generation includes Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who recently announced he will give away most of his $124bn fortune to help causes including fighting the climate crisis, and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to tackle inequalities.

The notion of philanthropy – a form of altruism that consists of private initiatives, for the public good – can stir up controversy for those who think that it is the role of the state to invest and to provide for its citizens, or for others who believe that individual philanthropists can exert too much power and influence through the causes that they support. Politics aside, it provides much-needed money to fund research, innovation and technology designed to solve Earth’s most pressing problems, from pandemics to climate change.

“Philanthropy is about taking a long-term systemic and entrepreneurial approach to driving system change. As such it is absolutely potentially a huge driver of innovation,” says Clare Woodcraft, a fellow at the Centre for Strategic Philanthropy at Cambridge Judge Business School.

As risk capital, it fills ‘market gaps’ where there are no incentives to operate, such as radical ideas. “Philanthropy can provide patient capital so that social change makers, social entrepreneurs and practitioners interested in addressing the world’s entrenched socio-economic challenges differently, have the support, the funding and the time to test new solutions,” she says.

There are two main approaches favoured by philanthropists looking for new ways to improve the lives of others: collaboration and competition.

Ask any researcher, CEO or founder and they will tell you that entering competitions is important to attract attention and win funding. They can also create a platform that amplifies success, according to Woodcraft. “Much of this kind of innovation is done in a fairly isolated way, and when social innovators and entrepreneurs find scalable, proven solutions, they often struggle to access funding for the next stage and to articulate the power of their intervention. This is where competitions can really help by ‘incubating’ solutions and helping to access needed resources to scale up,” she says.

UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) supports small and medium-sized businesses developing innovations with ‘significant potential’ for rapid economic return for the UK by offering Smart Grants. “We also have a number of targeted competitions open at any one time, ranging from developing local plans to unlock barriers to the delivery of net-zero targets to zero-emission propulsion and transitioning to a circular economy,” says Simon Edmonds, chief business officer for UKRI.

“A key theme in our work is the development of the future economy, which reflects the imperatives of improving the quality of life for all and protecting the environment. Not only will this deliver benefits for us and the planet, but it will also make the UK more attractive for global innovation,” he adds.

In October 2022, UKRI announced the winners of almost £14m in combined backing from its latest funding opportunity under the ‘Made Smarter’ innovation challenge, the ‘Sustainable Smart Factory’ competition.

Deep.Meta was one of 12 winners of the competition, which sought to identify and support digital innovations to improve the sustainability of manufacturing processes, resulting in either reduced material or energy consumption. The start-up focuses on reducing energy usage in steel production by using artificial intelligence. Osas Omoigiade, CEO of Deep.Meta, says winning the competition has opened up customer opportunities and helped him grow his team. “It’s been a great driver of growth for the business, bringing us closer to our ambition of building resilience into the UK steel industry by improving the efficiency of their processes, which result in a reduction in carbon emissions.”

As well as having a big impact on the winners in the short term, UKRI estimates that together, the projects could create 1,000 jobs in the three years after their completion, while reducing manufacturing carbon dioxide emissions by 300,000 tonnes a year. This is the equivalent to taking nearly 65,000 cars off our roads.

Large companies also run competitions appealing to start-ups or academia to solve big challenges. For example, Cisco’s Innovation Challenge offers $1m to accelerate the adoption of technology, products and services that will drive economic development or solve social or environmental problems, with no demand for any equity.

The billions keep piling up for many of America's 'great philanthropists'

Image credit: Dreamstime

Some of the most high-profile competitions that come with the largest prizes are bankrolled by famous tech company founders and philanthropists. The XPrize, which is designed to capture the imaginations of people and inspire them into action, is perhaps the most famous. In April, the XPrize and Musk Foundation awarded $1m each to 15 milestone winners in the $100m Carbon Removal Competition, which is the largest incentive prize in history. The overall winners will be crowned in 2025.

Some charities and organisations fund competitive paid fellowships to advance research by rewarding researchers with money and prestige. For example, Cancer Research UK’s Advanced Clinician Scientist Fellowship supports chosen clinician scientists in developing leadership in their field of academic research, providing salaries, expenses and equipment.

Even if there is no cash prize, pitching competitions for founders offering introductions can help propel start-ups to the big time and lead to lucrative deals. The Extreme Tech Challenge (XTC) is the world’s largest start-up competition for purpose-driven technology inspired by the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals. GoGoTech, a US start-up that has invented ABBY, an advanced yet affordable ‘personal electric vehicle’ wheelchair for adults with reduced mobility, won the recent HARMAN-XTC start-up challenge, which enabled it to exhibit at TechCrunch Disrupt. “The PR and visibility couldn’t have come at a better time to boost that WeFunder financing round,” John deBenedette, CEO and founder of the company told XTC. He said the competition was “super helpful” in getting in front of “elite and corporate investors”.

While competitions pit start-ups and researchers against one another, collaborative endeavours funded by philanthropic individuals and institutions are a friendlier alternative when it comes to driving innovation.

Woodcraft believes there is too little collaboration, and sees no negatives to working together to solve grand challenges. “Creating social value at scale is hugely complex and no one can go it alone. It has to be collaborative and hence engage with multiple different sector actors. If you want system change you need to work with the system and not in isolation,” she explains.

To make collaborations successful, she says it is necessary for a partnership to understand in advance what each party brings to the table as well as to establish a common mission and agreed methodology for social change. While reaching consensus may be an additional hurdle compared with forging ahead solo, it is rare that systemic change is delivered by a single entity. “It’s not an easy process, but the end result, with more scalable and systemic outcomes, is more powerful than individual philanthropists trying to go it alone,” says Woodcraft.

‘Philanthropy is about taking a long-term systemic and entrepreneurial approach to driving system change. As such it is absolutely potentially a huge driver of innovation.’

Clare Woodcraft, Cambridge Judge Business School

Charities and institutions offer funded opportunities to collaborate. For example, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation says it focuses on building partnerships to tackle specific challenges such as eradicating polio and malaria.

Challenges such as fighting global warming and pandemics require even more collaboration to bridge gaps between disciplines, organisations, academia, companies and governments, as well as investment capital and independent leaders. Regina Dugan, the first woman to lead the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and Kaigham J Gabriel, who was until recently president and CEO of The Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, believe philanthropy can meet this huge demand, and quickly. They are now CEO and COO respectively of Wellcome Leap, which is a non-profit organisation founded by the Wellcome Trust to accelerate and increase the number of breakthroughs in global health.

Focusing on the power of collaboration, Wellcome Leap built what is arguably the largest network of scientists and engineers in the world. There are more than 650,000 people in its Breakthough Network ready to use their experience to tackle big challenges.

Wellcome Leap evaluates every proposal’s ability to contribute to a major goal. In an article called ‘Changing the Business of Breakthroughs’, published in Issues in Science and Technology in summer 2022, Dugan and Gabriel wrote that this approach leads to more diverse teams comprising early-career researchers and established experts across academia, nonprofit and commercial enterprises. “Our method tends to elevate young investigators with new ideas that challenge the conventional wisdom in ways that consensus peer review does not,” they say. As the organisation uses contracts instead of grants, it allows it to “take a shot at something” in year one, and if it works, continue to fund work, or move on to another challenge.

This fresh approach is already bearing fruit. In July 2022, the organisation announced a significant advance by researchers in the Bjorkman lab at Caltech. The study demonstrates broad immune responses in non-human primates against a spectrum of SARS-like betacoronaviruses when immunised with a new nanoparticle-based vaccine, named mosaic-8. The advance suggests that it may be possible to be vaccinated against animal viruses that could spill over to infect humans to cause another pandemic, and also against SARS-CoV-2 variants before they even exist.

Dr Pamela Bjorkman, who was involved in the work, says: “We couldn’t have done this research this quickly without Wellcome Leap.” As well as providing funding, the organisation helped her team clear obstacles and build effective collaborations. “I estimate they reduced our timeline from two years to six months, which in lab timelines is unheard of,” she adds. CEO Dugan says: “This outcome demonstrates the priority we put on stacking the odds in favour of a breakthrough – we believe that we can accelerate and increase the number of breakthroughs if we work with speed, agility and global collaboration. By matching the high potential of the research with a high sense of urgency, we may now be in a better position on pandemic prevention.”

Both collaborative and competitive philanthropic endeavours are advancing science but it’s impossible to say which approach is more effective. “I imagine a blend of cooperative and competition may be the most effective way to use funds to drive innovation,” Woodcraft notes.

This is certainly happening, intentionally or not, as there is often an element of collaboration in competitions, and competition within collaborative endeavours. For example, teams must work together to win prestigious competitions like the XPrize, while Cancer Grand Challenges is a collaborative initiative co-founded by the National Cancer Institute in the US and Cancer Research UK that supports diverse, global research, but requires teams to beat others in order to earn a spot and be rewarded with $25m awards. Once teams have been selected, they become part of a community that unites more than 700 researchers who will take on 10 challenges across 11 teams and 10 countries.

Whether you have set your sights on winning a prestigious competition or want to work in a team to save the world, philanthropic endeavours help everyone win by putting humanity on the path to finding long-term, scalable solutions to our biggest problems.


Philanthropy in numbers

• The philanthropy sector is worth $2.3tn.

• That equates to just under 3 per cent of global GDP but, according to a report by Citi, in some advanced economies the fully adjusted value is 10 per cent or even higher.

• 67 per cent of the cash comes from individuals (rather than corporations or trusts).

• Women will inherit 70 per cent of inter-generational wealth by 2035. They are more likely than men to support equality and make donations without restrictions, so some experts expect them to help drive philanthropic efforts.

Source: Citi

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles