Targeting Breakthroughs in Early-Stage Medical Research

Many of humanity’s most intractable challenges are also our most personally impactful. Issues like poverty, access to clean water, and education inequality threaten life around the globe. Among these critical human issues, medical challenges rank high. Our own health, and the health of our loved ones, is simultaneously an impactful concern for many of us and the most complex. 

Many of these issues become so hard to manage because of years of missed or neglected opportunities for progress. In the case of medical research, advances in education and capabilities are making vital breakthroughs more and more possible. Brilliant researchers around the world are solving medical challenges that defy comprehension for most of us. They have passion and knowledge. 

What many of them lack is the capacity to move their research forward from nascency to public solution. Early-stage support for medical research can help to smooth that hurdle. The lingering problem is that many ‘traditional’ investors hesitate to offer access to funding and networks vital for progress.

Contextualizing Early-stage Medical Research

The term “early-stage” is common in investing circles, where it refers to the startup phase of a company’s development. Building a new business or innovation takes time, money, and in many cases, a proof-of-concept. These investments involve a high level of risk. Nonetheless, angel and seed investors accept them because they also involve a high payout — for the investor and for the world — if the business or product succeeds. 

Imagine if more investors adopted that mindset and willingness to embrace risk with the improved health and future of people as the payout. This concept is the fundamental driving motivation for those individuals and organizations that provide early-stage medical research funding. And it is what the Karen Toffler Charitable Trust works to provide in our commitment to discovering breakthrough solutions to lingering human challenges. 

We think of early-stage medical research in three distinct ways: early-career researchers, foundational research, and creative or ambitious approaches.

Early-Career Researchers

Early-career researchers are those who are just beginning their careers as scientists. They commonly lack the support necessary to compete with established labs for the funding they need to move their work forward. Like investors who seek to support businesses that have a solid proof-of-concept, many grants prioritize labs and researchers who already have garnered funding from other sources. Securing the very first round of funding for a project early enough for it to fuel progress to the next phase can be extremely difficult. 

But for those who are willing to take a risk to support these early-stage researchers, the rewards can be immeasurable. Financial and network support can have a profound impact on the careers of these promising young researchers and on those who are helped by the work. 

“As an early-stage investigator, it’s really challenging to get things started, build your own lab, and have that level of support because you’re competing with people who have more experience and more of a track record. The support from the Karen Toffler Charitable Trust — both financial and in terms of the exposure — makes a big difference.”

– Dr. Ira Hofer
Assistant Professor of Anesthesiology at UCLA and Director of the Division of Bioinformatics
UCLA Toffler Scholar Recipient 2020

Foundational Research

As a category, early-stage research also covers ideas that are early in the research process or that illuminate fundamental theories. These concepts often set a foundation for applied scientific research to build on later. Like early-stage investing in companies, supporting these ideas might be a higher risk than putting money into proven concepts, but doing so is a vital part of the research and innovation process.

Creative and Ambitious Approaches

In some cases, the researcher or the research is a little further along, but the idea or strategy is so different that it needs extra support to garner acceptance or accelerate adoption. These new ways of thinking and problem-solving often involve research that makes connections across disciplines, like computer science and medicine.

A Bridge to Breakthroughs 

The Karen Toffler Charitable Trust has built a future-focused framework that allows us to be a bridge from early-stage ideas to a stage of research where funding traditionally is more obtainable. The primary way we accomplish this is through the Toffler Scholar Program.

Through this groundbreaking program, the Karen Toffler Charitable Trust partners with leading universities to support researchers in the earliest stages of medical breakthroughs, particularly in the area of brain science. Every year, university partners select researchers who become Toffler Scholars. Toffler Scholars are awarded an annual grant to support their research. With this funding and a vital, relevant network, recipients have the resources they need not only to continue their work, but also to develop into experienced professionals.

The brave, unorthodox approach to funding reflects our current dedication to doing our part to solve these massive and complex medical challenges. It also reflects the commitment and legacy of our founders,  Alvin and Heidi Toffler, who studied, wrote about and worked to advance the progress of the positive forces shaping modern society. Our efforts are grounded in the same spirit that motivated their work, a sense of curiosity, a fierce determination, and a belief that one person can make a difference.
By focusing on early-stage medical research, we hope to push the future of humanity in a brighter, more hopeful direction. We see great potential in the young medical researchers making that vision of a healthier humanity. And we welcome you to join us.