Health and health care have witnessed a tremendous explosion of innovation over the past several decades. New technologies, new procedures, and new ways of connecting people and information all have the potential to transform health and medicine.
In 2003, RWJF created the Pioneer Portfolio—a clear commitment to harnessing this pipeline of emerging ideas to serve the social good. Our work complements the more targeted efforts of the Foundation’s other teams.
The Pioneer Portfolio is uniquely suited to invest in innovation at many different stages. We seek to:
- Identify and explore new issues and approaches.
- Accelerate progress on issues and approaches that have significant potential to create breakthroughs in health and health care.
- Support projects that use original, unconventional, or cross-sectoral approaches to create transformative change.
While most people think of innovation as a “lightning strike” of creative genius, transformative ideas rarely come out of nowhere. We identify early stage ideas and help them develop.
RWJF staff members discuss their search for new ideas that have the potential to transform health and health care.
What is a pioneering idea?
What kind of projects does the Pioneer Portfolio fund? As a team, we have created our grantmaking strategy around a very intentional set of activities designed to help us find innovators and innovations with the potential to drive exponential change in health and health care.
We invest in processes and practices that nurture innovation and breakthroughs. We want to network with others who share our passion for health and health care, as well as those in other sectors whose insights might shed new light on the thorniest issues in our field.
- You’ll find team members at gatherings such as as Health Foo ("Friends of O'Reilly"). At this self-organizing event, attendees create an open agenda on the spot to catalyze the kind of outside-the-box thinking that is needed to transform health and health care.
- We have made grants to Ashoka Changemakers to create an online competition, crowdsourcing solutions to pressing health and health care challenges.
We also make numerous grants that help us learn about and experiment in new areas. These initial explorations allow the Pioneer team to venture into new fields and ways of approaching problems.
- We have made grants to help behavioral economists, choice theorists, and others studying habit formation examine new ideas for helping people make healthier decisions.
- We’re funding a seminar series that examines placebos and their potential to improve health care delivery and patient well-being.
We are also making a handful of broader commitments to areas of exploration we feel hold promise for producing big breakthroughs. When the Pioneer team has a clear hypothesis about how we can support progress in a given field, we make a number of grants over a set period time to help that field grow or rise to the next level.
- We have funded a broad exploration of the power that gaming could have in improving health and health care.
- We are exploring the data that is generated in real time by patients in the “real world,” rather than a clinical setting. What value could this type of data hold for patients, providers, researchers, and public health officials?
Finally, we nurture a limited number of individual breakthrough ideas that have the potential to create transformational change in health and health care. But “breakthrough” can be difficult to define. So just what do these types of ideas look like? Some of Pioneer's most successful projects have been
- Transformational, having the potential to bring about radical, not incremental, change.
- Future-oriented, looking to tomorrow to solve health and health care challenges today.
- Transferable, addressing a large-scale problem or being adaptable to other contexts.
- Original, representing a fresh approach or a novel application of an established idea or approach.
- Unconventional, challenging traditional thought and practice by viewing the problem–and/or the solution–through a different lens.
- Interdisciplinary, bringing in perspectives and approaches from other industries or drawing together nontraditional partners.
- Project ECHO is a disruptive—yet simple—model for health care training and delivery that allows remote primary care providers to access specialized knowledge and manage complex chronic conditions formerly outside their expertise. It is changing how primary care providers can treat very sick patients who previously did not have access to specialty care.
The Pioneer team welcomes ideas that will help us move toward the future, working together to solve pressing challenges in health and health care. If you have an idea or project that fits our grantmaking strategy, we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to join the conversation on the Pioneering Ideas blog—or follow us on Twitter.