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Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Holds Pioneer Pitch Day to Promote Innovation, Transparency, and Entrepreneurship
October 24, 2013

(Emily Keller is an editorial associate in the Corporate Philanthropy department at the Foundation Center.)

Keller-100In an innovative approach to sourcing ideas for funding, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) conducted an open call for applicants—in 1,000 characters or less—to share an idea and their vision for how it could change the world. More than 500 individuals and organizations shared submissions, which reflected some of our country’s greatest health challenges: access to quality care, the social determinants of health, leveraging the abundance of data available to improve outcomes and accelerating the current pace of discovery.

Pitch-day-team (1)Last week, a team of health care and science experts from RWJF and other organizations gathered to listen and evaluate the resulting set of groundbreaking health care proposals in front of a live audience as part of an effort to open up the philanthropic application process and increase innovation. This first-ever Pioneer Pitch Day took place at the New York headquarters of AppNexus and consisted of eight fast-paced presentations by finalists, followed by questions from a rotating panel of judges and the audience, for a total pitch time of ten minutes each.

A Catalyst for Transformation and Disruptive Change

"We’re looking for disruptive change versus incremental improvements."

The event was part of an effort to solicit ideas for the foundation’s Pioneer Portfolio, launched in 2003 to fund transformative and innovative approaches to dramatically improving health and health care in the US. Lori Melichar, team director for the portfolio, said the event provided her team with an opportunity to clarify the types of proposals they are seeking.

“When we tell people we are looking for innovative ideas that could transform health and health care, they don’t necessarily know what we mean. We’re looking for disruptive change versus incremental improvements,” said Melichar. “We hope that shedding light on the questions we ask when we meet as a team to review a proposal will help applicants develop their ideas and shape the proposals that are shared with us.”

Inquiry as a Means to Help Refine Ideas

Pitch3The judges’ questions helped finalists to refine ideas that incorporated themes of big data, collaboration and aggregation, crowdsourcing, social networks, transparency and accountability, and mobile technology. For example, when presenter Tara F. Bishop pitched a comprehensive and transparent doctor evaluation system incorporating existing patient reviews with qualitative data, Paul Tarini, senior program officer at the foundation, suggested that she needed a data acquisition strategy.

In another presentation, Elise Miller made the case for incorporating the human exposome – a person’s environmental exposures throughout their life – with the human genome to determine personalized health risks and prevention strategies and establish a database for studying correlations between exposure and disease. Nancy Barrand, senior adviser for program development at the foundation, called this a “massive undertaking” and asked Miller how she would chunk it and where she would begin. Judges also noted that people may be unaware of their exposures and big data could be used to gather that information through home addresses.

Opening Up the Foundation to New Participants

The finalists were chosen from 521 applicants who responded to the open call for proposals in September through an online system that allowed applicants the unique opportunity to see the competition and view others’ submissions. The Pioneer Portfolio is the only portfolio at the foundation that accepts brief unsolicited proposals but they are not usually posted publicly. According to Melichar, most of the submissions came from people and institutions that had never applied for funding from the foundation before.

At the end, three winners were chosen to engage in further conversations with the foundation to develop full proposals for funding. They were:

Tracking Medical Student Searches to Gather Data

Not Only Development and co-author of the book Hacking Healthcare, presented Breaking Barriers in Medical Knowledge, an initiative to use medical students’ web browser histories to spread emerging information with the goal of improving medical translation and reducing communication layers between patients and experts. Trotter, a healthcare data journalist and advocate of open data and transparency, has 5,000 medical students committed to donating their data.

Transforming Breast Cancer Screenings

LauraLaura Esserman, MD, MBA, presented Implementing Risk-Based Cancer Screening Using an Adaptive Learning Engine, a proposal to draw on personalized biomarkers and biology to establish a risk-based breast cancer screening process integrated with prevention.

“By profiling tumors that arise, we will learn who is at risk for what type of cancer and facilitate tailoring treatment to biology. Using an adaptive learning model, we can accelerate and implement effective change and precision medicine,” said Esserman, director of the Carol Franc Buck Breast Care Center in San Francisco. Margaret (Peggy) O'Kane of the National Committee for Quality Assurance and Clarence So of Salesforce also contributed to the proposal.

Using Social Networks to Improve Hospital Safety

MedStar HealthSarah Henrickson Parker, Allan Fong, and Raj Ratwani of MedStar Health presented Creating a Social Epidemic of Safety – an initiative to examine the social network of a hospital, identify staff members who influence others, and train them to spread safety information to reduce preventable errors. The team members described their project as a data-driven, multi-pronged approach using sociometrics and offered an example in which a persistent nurse influenced doctors to double-check a patient at the end of a surgery and found a medical sponge that was accidentally left in the patient’s wound; thereby preventing post-surgical complications.

Melichar said the event was educational for the foundation and could be repeated. “We learned a lot from Pitch Day, including ways we can apply elements of the event to other sourcing activities. We haven’t made any final decisions yet, but we think that we will do something like this again in the future,” she said.

What do you think foundations should be doing to open their applications processes to innovative ideas, greater transparency, and new applicants? Please provide your suggestions below.

-- Emily Keller


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  • Transparency Talk, the GlassPockets blog, is a platform for candid and constructive conversation about foundation transparency and accountability. In this space, Candid highlights strategies, findings, and best practices on the web and in foundations–illuminating the importance of having "glass pockets."

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