Andrew's Angle - January 2020

Andrew Read

If you imagine the 21st century as a five-day work week, hitting 2020 means Monday is over. What should we do with Tuesday?  

At Huck, we’re aiming for more disruption and failure. But not for their own sake. We’re after disruption and failure with a purpose. Our thinking is simple. Truly innovative and transformational research never starts with a ‘safe bet.’ That means we have to be prepared to make unsafe bets... 

So, with great enthusiasm and a BIG financial gulp, we are resurrecting the Huck Innovative & Transformational Seed (HITS) Fund.

This program is designed to foster projects with knock-your-socks-off potential that are too risky to secure conventional support. The application is simple. Persuade us that your idea will change important games if it pans out, and that none of the usual suspects will fund it. If we buy your argument, we’ll give you all the money we think you need to de-risk things for traditional funders. We’ll eat the financial loss if you fail, no questions asked. In return, you have to be ready to eat the time, bandwidth and opportunity cost if your idea is wrong. 

Brave enough?

Huck ran this scheme before, just once, in 2012. The rubric was conceived on the I-99, when then-Huck Director Pete Hudson and I were coming back from DC, lamenting the incrementalism we’d just experienced. 

Around that time, I vividly recall newly recruited Assistant Professor Marcel Salathe assert that ‘When safety comes first, America is lost’ (a line he attributed to a Roosevelt, but Google does not). That sentiment so captured the America of Possibilities I imagined as a child in New Zealand. I was eager to test it out and so was Pete.

There were 40 applications. I was amazed and disappointed we had so few. Huck does business with more than 500 faculty and even more grad students and post-docs, and only 40 have high-risk/high-payoff ideas? Worse, half the proposals were shovel-ready for NIH or NSF. Great stuff, but not bold. Of the remaining 20, we took a gamble on five or six. You can see four successes here. Clearly we did something wrong: 4 out of 5-6 is freakily successful. 

Going forward and with a view to permanently raising aspirations, we will run the HITS call twice a year for as long as we can keep the money going. We want everyone at Penn State to incubate bold, high-risk/payoff ideas. Develop them. Bring them to us. 

Choosing the proposals to fund will of course be a challenge. I am delighted to announce that Steve Benkovic—someone who knows a thing or two about high-payoff, risky science—has agreed to co-chair the process with me. We’ll populate the selection panel with an outsider or two and then, depending on applicant subject areas, we’ll ask big-thinking Penn State professors with subject expertise and no conflicts of interest to get involved. 

Likely the selection panel will vary over time. We’ll get shortlisted applicants in for discussion and figure out with them how to hold their feet to the fire while simultaneously nurturing their idea to an agreed “GO/NO GO” point.

Everyone at Penn State should have at least one high risk-high payoff idea they can’t get funded. This is your chance to give it your best shot. Take a risk. Life is short. Bring us the ideas that would change the world if they pan out. 

If nothing else, it will make for an exciting Tuesday. 

- Andrew