Starting a new research institute: Not an easy task!
By Philippe Jutras
Sept. 02, 2022
I have always wanted to conduct science in a way that goes beyond established approaches. The idea of creating a distributed (virtual!) institute started soon after the Covid-19 pandemic hit. It took almost two years of discussion and iteration of the project before it became a reality. In April 2022, I decided to commit full-time to creating the Plant Cell Institute as a collaborative and open research institute. I believe remarkable innovations emerge from teams that can connect multiple disciplines, and collaborative research is essential to solving urgent scientific problems. The response from the scientific community was greater than I expected. Rapidly, more than 60 scientists registered their interest in the project. I want to thank everyone who registered sincerely. Your support undoubtedly helped, and still does, in the subsequent steps of the project.
My first mistake was to apply for grants based on creating a new way of conducting research (see the four values of the PCI). I focused on the 'How' rather than the 'What' science the institute will do. Research agencies and other organisations did not consider the project. After going through this first round, I felt that I should wait until I am 65 years old, then start the institute and retire! Not really the life that I want to pursue. I knew establishing a new institute wouldn't be easy, so I looked at other funding alternatives. Another key change in my approach was selecting a specific project the institute will work on. This first project needed to be aligned with the research topics of the institute: climate change, food security and emerging diseases. After discussion with collaborators, we identified agriculture as an area ready for innovation. Agriculture has been done the same way for thousands of years, and I think plant biotechnology, more specifically plantcell biotechnology, can revolutionise food production. That's why the institute's first mission is to develop cell-based agriculture for cereal production.
Producing crops in the field is a never-ending battle as the environment is constantly changing, especially in the coming years with the advent of climate change. We have no control over the environment, which is a real problem. We can only assume that increasing agricultural land will significantly impact the environment, weakening it every day. The institute proposes to develop cell-based agricultural systems that will remove our dependency on land and climate to produce food (details on this webpage).
With this new project emerging, I decided to contact private foundations to ask for financial support. It sounded easy to do, but it was a pretty laborious approach. It's not a simple task to get access to these funding bodies, and even harder to get invited to present your project. When you get a chance to pitch your idea, they ask for proof that the institute could deliver the project (understandable!), but tricky to prove as it just started a few months ago! The positive takeaway of this approach is that the foundations usually forward your application to another organisation, creating a snowball effect.
The second approach I decided to try was to create a business that would outsource the research to the institute. This structure would allow me to secure funding from private investors and venture capital firms (VCs). I followed a learning-by-doing approach! The hardest part of this strategy is to access private investors. If you are a scientist, I sincerely recommend starting to create a network outside science. I discovered the power of the network effect in the business world. It is not negligible. Also, I pitched to investors using a similar deck that I designed for foundations. What a mistake! When you say to investors that you want to change the world, they don't care. You have to show numbers and how quickly you can be profitable. That is the only thing that matters. I am still following a learning-by-doing approach! And I have learned a lot. With the knowledge I gained from this experience, I submitted a stronger proposal for startup accelerator programmes. Luckily, I got offers! Stay tuned for the forthcoming announcement.
I've worked hard for the project to happen in the past months, and somehow the results seem to be slowly taking shape. I am super excited about the recent progress and can wait to join an accelerator programme to push the idea further. If you believe in the project and its mission, please reach out to me! Together we can accomplish great things.