A Pair of $20 Million Research Initiatives

How much does it take to jumpstart a serious academic research initiative these days? Apparently the answer is $20 million.

That’s the amount pledged for two different projects announced this week. One is an initiative at MIT to study major psychiatric diseases including bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia, and the other is an agreement between Harvard researchers and German chemical giant BASF to support postdoctoral students studying a range of problems in physics, chemistry, and biology.

At MIT, the McGovern Institute for Brain Research announced that it has received a $20 million gift from MIT alumnus James Poitras and his wife, Patricia, of Narcoossee, FL, to create the James W. and Patricia T. Poitras Center for Affective Disorders Research. The funds will go to support research into the genetic and environmental roots of depression and related illnesses, which are estimated to affect 9.5 percent of the U.S. population, or some 21 million people, every year.

“We decided many years ago, when bipolar disorder first affected our family directly, that our philanthropic efforts would be directed towards this area of brain research,” the Poitrases said in a statement. “We could not have imagined then that this perfect synergy between research at MIT’s McGovern Institute and our own philanthropic goals would develop. We are very hopeful for the future.”

At Harvard, the Office of Technology Development (the university’s licensing wing) and BASF announced an unusual five-year, $20 million initiative designed to “foster a vibrant and dynamic intellectual exchange” between the university and the company. BASF will fund proof-of-concept projects within Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and will have the right to develop market innovations with commercial potential.

Specifically, Harvard and BASF said they will initially investigate problems such as building polymer structures that could deliver active-ingredient molecules to specific places, in the human body or elsewhere, and controlling the growth of biofilms, microbial communities that grow on surfaces and cause problems in medical and industrial settings.

“We must be as innovative in funding and translating research as we are in conducting it,” said Venkatesh Narayanamurti, dean of Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, in a statement. “By establishing the BASF Advanced Research Initiative at Harvard, we can bolster our existing excellence in basic and applied research, and develop new ways to bring research out of the lab.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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