Huck Institutes' HITS fund will support scientific risk-takers

Penn State’s Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences has relaunched a program to encourage more risk-taking across Penn State’s scientific community. Dubbed the Huck Innovative and Transformational Seed Fund— or HITS — the initiative will provide financial support for bold ideas that promise a high-return if successful, but which appear too unorthodox to attract traditional sources of funding.

“Truly innovative and transformational research never starts with a ‘safe bet,’” explained Andrew Read, director of the Huck Institutes of the Life Sciences. “Since Huck’s mission is to catalyze impactful life science research, we have to be prepared to make unsafe bets.”

The program only ran once before, in 2012. The rubric was conceived by Read and previous Huck director Pete Hudson on Interstate 99, as they were returning from Washington, D.C., lamenting the incrementalism of their field. Their call for something outside the norm was met with 40 applications.

“The review panel took a gamble on five or six,” Read recalled. 

Of those, four led to significant successes, which can be reviewed here.

But Read’s aim is not to recreate the outcomes of the original HITS call. Far from it. He’s actually hoping to fund more wildly bold failures as well — to prove that there are some real chances being taken. 

“Clearly we did something wrong,” he quipped. “Four out of five or six is freakily successful.”

“HITS was likely instrumental in my path,” said Marcel Salathé, now a faculty member at the EPFL In Geneva, Switzerland. Salathé received one of the original HITS grants in 2012 as a newly minted assistant professor at Penn State. 

“It allowed David Hughes and I to move forward with PlantVillage, which eventually led me rapidly toward deep learning, which led to almost everything I do now,” Salathé said. “I’m happy to see PlantVillage is doing well, but even if the project had been an abject failure, it was crucial for me. I increasingly think that high potential projects are always a success — just not always by what is measured.”

Proposals can be in any area of life sciences — including genomics, infectious disease, plant sciences, neuroscience, metabolomics, food and health, and biomedical research — or at the intersection of life sciences and other strengths at the University, notably materials science, computational and data science, social science, and environmental science.

A panel of reviewers, co-chaired by Steve Benkovic and Andrew Read, will rank the most exciting ideas and decide what level of funding would be appropriate with what milestones. Successful projects may be funded in full or in part, and project modifications may be requested based on review, oral presentations and feedback. 

“Our bar to entry is low,” said Read. “Persuade us that your idea will change important games if it pans out, and that none of the usual suspects will fund it, and we’ll give you all the money we think you need to de-risk things for conventional 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.”

Subject to funding availability, this is an open-ended call, with decisions made twice a year. The review panel will consider applications received by April 15 and by Nov. 15. Applications should be submitted here.

More information about the HITS program, including opportunities to help fund its continuation, can be found here

Additionally Read’s personal vision for the program can be reviewed in this post from the Huck’s eNewsletter.

“Surely everyone at Penn State should have at least one high risk-high payoff idea they can’t get funded,” Read noted. “So this is our call. Take a risk. Life is short. Bring us the ideas that would change the world if they pan out.”