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Thrasher Research Fund: Perspective from a funder, Brittni Smith, Research Manager

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"Funder Perspective" runs vertical on far left. Thrasher Research Fund Brittni Smith, Research Manager logo of Thrasher Research Fund Below At right an image of a woman outdoors with blond hair, grey top.

Preface: I enjoyed interviewing Brittni Smith, Research Manager at Thrasher Research Fund, to learn more about this incredible research funder.

Tell me more about yourself and your role at Thrasher Research Fund?

I’m a Research Manager and part of a small group of four working at Thrasher Research Fund. I’m based in Utah, USA. We give away around 5 million USD annually to researchers who are making clinical impact related to children’s diseases.

Previously, I worked in cancer research, and I had a background in writing and getting grants. I knew the process from the side of the researcher. Thrasher was looking for someone who had this type of background, and I was at a point where I was ready to leave benchwork and try something new.

What funding options can researchers apply to?

There are two funding programs within our organization:

  1. Thrasher Awards: these range from 250,000 -500,000 USD over a two to three year period.
  2. Early Career Awards: 25K USD. We offer 32 of these per year. In these cases, we are investing in the people, the researchers. We are looking for applicants with potential to have a clinically impactful future research career. 

There are no citizenship requirements for either award type, and we hope to invest on a global scale.

Tell me about the application process for the Thrasher Awards? 

We try to interact with applicants, and when we do, these applications are usually better! My favorite aspect of the job is to talk with researchers; to hear about their projects and research passions. I want every application we get to have the best chance for funding, which is why I appreciate the chance to hear about project ideas, and to provide suggestions to improve the fit with our organization. Our applications follow a two tier process. During the first tier, applicants submit a short concept paper explaining a brief background, research gap, hypothesis, and short study design. The Thrasher staff scores these and invites the most promising proposals to submit a full application. We focus on projects with a clear path to clinical impact as opposed to projects focusing on mechanism or basic science. We look at several factors when judging concept papers and assessing fit. We look at disease severity, incidence, quality of the science, track record of the applicant, implementation barriers, or current treatments available. These concepts include wonderful science, but may not be within our focus at Thrasher, so this is where applications are screened out for fit.

At the next tier, we then invite applicants to submit a full proposal. The applications go to peer-review, where we find the best researchers throughout the world to score the proposal. After peer review, the top 40% of  applicants are invited to revise and resubmit the proposal before they are then sent to the Scientific Advisory Committee which ranks the proposals on scientific soundness and impact on child health. 

Finally, the Executive Committee meets to decide what projects to fund. They discuss the merits of each project. These are tough meetings, as there are always great applications that we don’t have the budget to fund.

With our application process, we aim to have as minimal of a time burden as possible on applicants. That’s why we start with a concept paper process – a quick screen in and out. We want people writing full proposals invited to have a good chance to get an award.

 
How many applicants do you typically have in any given year?

We have two cycles each year for our Thrasher Awards, and they are both similar in numbers. Each cycle, around 100 applicants submit a concept paper.  

We then invite about 25 applicants to submit a full proposal for peer review. At this stage, about half are rejected because the scores are poor, there are flaws in the study design or the proposal is overselling its significance in the field.

Usually about 10-12 proposals go into the final meetings, with 4-6 being funded each cycle.

 
Can Thrasher Research Fund applicants re-apply? 
 

Once they’ve gone through the application process, applicants cannot re-apply with the same idea. They can submit a new project, but it must be different from the rejected proposal.

 
Of the projects funded to date, are there any you are particularly fond of? 
 

I probably shouldn’t single anyone because I love so many of our projects!

What I love is that we fund any idea that has the potential for impact on child health. The variety of ideas that researchers in pediatrics come up with is amazing. We have worked on a huge variety of topics, e.g. neonatal related issues, infectious disease, nutrition, preterm birth, and allergy. One of the great things about the fund is that we are open to a full range of child health topics.

One great thing is that there is always a success somewhere in our portfolio of over 150 projects. I get a different perspective than doing the bench science. I’m looking at the long-haul. When I look at the history of Thrasher over the years, there is a lot of progress and advancements being made in a wide variety of fields.

 
What oversight do you have after the funding has been granted?

There is a report needed every 6 months. This is not overly burdensome, and the goal is just to check in that things are moving forward with the research project.

 
When I look at a global map of Thrasher Research funded projects, you have a truly global reach with your funding. How do you organize the global distribution of funding? 
 

About 50% of our funding goes to high income countries and 50% to low and middle income countries, and we’re proud of this. We’re looking at opportunities for clinical change on a global scale.

Tell me more about the history and vision of the Thrasher Research Fund?

The benefactor of the Thrasher Research Fund, E. W. “Al” Thrasher, was born June 30, 1920 in Chelan, Washington. He started working at age 10 to help support his family and was cutting cordwood for sale by age 14. From this early age he combined hard work with innovative improvements. He started his own mill and created several inventions focused on reducing waste in the lumber industry, establishing a research facility devoted entirely to improved lumber recovery. Altogether, his inventions enabled lumber producers to reduce waste by over 30%, vitalizing the entire lumber industry. Later, he became Corporate Vice President of Masonite Corporation, was responsible for its lumber division and served on the Board of Directors.

In 1972, Al merged his inventive spirit with his love for children, donating 2,034 acres of second-growth redwood timber property for pediatric medical research. In 1977, this timber tract was sold for nearly $14 million, leading to the establishment of the Thrasher Research Fund.

In the early years, the small funding organization granted many awards in biomedical research. As more money became available for grants, the Fund moved to focus on clinical research and expanded its reach to the international community. Currently, the Fund supports clinical, hypothesis-driven research in both international and domestic locations. To date, the Fund has awarded over $100 million in research grants, resulting in diagnostic methods, treatments, and governmental policies that have improved the lives of children on a global scale.

Mr. Thrasher died in 2005, but before that he often came to Utah to participate in Executive meetings and help determine which projects to fund. He was not a doctor at all, but he knew that invention and research is how to solve the world’s problems. His wife, Mary B Thrasher and his step children remain involved.

What advice would you give to prospective applicants?

It’s a great idea to call one of our Research Managers! We can discuss specific ideas or your research portfolio to give you an idea of what will fit with Thrasher. We can talk about what to emphasize in your application and how to focus on aspects that would appeal to our organization.

Find more information on Thrasher Research Fund, our Awards and details on our website here. 

Acknowledgment

We would like to thank Brittni for sharing her funder’s perspective with us! As this interview was conducted over zoom, the text has been modified slightly for the purposes of this written format and approved by Brittni Smith, Research Manager and Justin Brown, President of Thrasher Research Institute.

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