San Antonio — A Texas billionaire is funding a new competition that will give $4 million to seven individuals who present promising ideas about the cause of Alzheimer’s disease and say they’ll work to prove it.
Called the Oskar Fischer Project, the program will give the grand prize winner $2 million of the total, while two others receive $500,000 each, and four more get $250,000 apiece. To top it off, the money comes without requirements to complete the project or to make specific determinations. While the goal of the project is for the winners to look into the causes of Alzheimer’s—and the founders of the project may check in with the winners at some point—the funding is given to them outright, with the aim of giving them more freedom to focus on determining the potential basis of Alzheimer’s disease. The program is open anyone, not just scientists, and no previous track record in Alzheimer’s research is required. Applicants just need to present a proposal.
It is unusual, and potentially risky, to give such a substantial award to someone, especially without requiring any specific milestones or markers. James Truchard, who is providing the money to fund the project, says he’s not worried because he’s in a position to take this kind of risk.
“I don’t have a profession to defend or a reputation to keep,” Truchard says, speaking in a phone interview. “If I lose my reputation because I give the prize to somebody that doesn’t have a great idea, I’m willing to take that risk.”
Truchard is the co-founder of Austin-based National Instruments, a company that reported almost $1.3 billion of net sales in 2017 of the software and hardware it makes for scientists and engineers to use in instrumentation testing. Truchard, who trained as an electrical engineer, retired from his roles as president and CEO in 2017, but remains chairman of the company, which he co-founded in 1976 while he was working full-time at the University of Texas at Austin.
Truchard, 75, has a personal connection to the issue; his first wife, Lee, had vascular dementia, and died in 2012 from a brain aneurysm. He started learning about neurodegenerative diseases and wanted to do more. Truchard doesn’t have any training in biology or neuroscience—and the applicants for the prizes don’t need to either. The winners will be picked based on their ability to demonstrate they might be able to meet the project’s goal. Truchard says he believes an individual who takes a multidisciplinary approach may be able to find something in the troves of scientific research and data that others haven’t seen.
“It is a complex problem so you’re going to need somebody who can really think across the boundaries,” Truchard says. “I’m hoping there’s some genius somewhere that can put all the pieces of the puzzle together and come up with a good explanation.”
The University of Texas at San Antonio is administering the project, and received a $5 million gift from Truchard to establish it. Truchard is doing similar work at other universities including UT Austin, Baylor, and UCLA, funding more than 10 research projects that look into everything from bacteria and viruses to infrared lights. He does that work under the name the Oskar Fischer Project, and is loaning the name to UTSA for the Alzheimer’s challenge. In May, it was announced that he was joining The Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group and the American Heart Association/American Stroke Association in committing $43 million to fund a separate Alzheimer’s project.
For the San Antonio project, about $1 million of the $5 million gift is being used to advertise and administer the project, according to George Perry, an Alzheimer’s researcher and the chief scientist at the UTSA Brain Health Consortium, who is heading the Oskar Fischer Project in San Antonio. Perry says he plans to make a call for proposals in February 2019. He and a group of other researchers (many will come from Texas) will review the proposals to determine who is selected.
Winners probably won’t be selected for a while: The plan is to promote the Oskar Fischer Project around the world for the next year, if not longer, to draw the largest pool of applicants. The selection committee would hopefully select winners … Next Page »