Scientists call such structures pop-up institutes.
It takes years for typical university institutes to go from the planning stage to functioning. It also requires big donations for a new building and to hire faculty and scientists.
In contrast, pop-up institutes can start functioning for less than $1 million a year and in a jiffy.
“With pop-up institutes, we feel that we can deliver a lot of value for very little money,” Regis Kelly, who came up with the pop-up idea, said in a press release. “More bang for your buck.”
Kelly is director of the university’s QB3 Institute, whose goal is to speed up life science innovation and entrepreneurship.
Similar to pop-up stores, pop-up institutes are intended to have a quick and cheap set-up, focus on a particular topic for a limited time, and disband once their purpose has been achieved. They do not require waiting for a new building or a mega-donor.
QB3 started the first University of California pop-up institute in collaboration with Calico in 2015. Its focus is longevity and aging-related diseases.
The newest pop-up, which will include IPF, will focus on tissue-scarring diseases, including cirrhosis of the liver, and kidney and heart fibrosis.
The main criteria that QB3 uses to decide what kind of research might fit a pop-up model are no existing institute, studies that could meet a major public need, and studies that could quickly expand knowledge.
“For something like cancer, there are multiple institutes, medical certifications, a discipline that gets its own name: oncology,” Kelly said. “But for fibrosis, there’s no separate discipline, there’s no specific course in the medical schools, but there’s tremendous medical need and interest from the pharmaceutical industry to find new solutions.”
The much lower start-up cost makes a pop-up more attractive to many would-be partners and donors, including wealthy individuals, foundations, and patient advocacy groups.
Kelly said post-doctoral fellows and graduate students can play a crucial role in fostering collaboration among the different laboratories in a pop-up institute.
“Faculty have these incredible labs that can be used for a wide range of research, but everyone pretty much stays in their silos,” Kelly said. “Post-docs and grad students have much more flexibility.”
QB3 has lined up funds for four students in four different labs of the fibrosis institute, but it plans to expand the support. Its overall goal will be to assemble a group of researchers with the skills to study fibrosis in a collaborative manner.
“Integrating information to solve large problems — it’s something universities are uniquely positioned to do,” Kelly said.
Working in a pop-up can give post-docs a competitive edge in the job market by training them in areas in high demand, he added.
“Part of the job of a university is to prepare researchers to tackle society’s needs,” Kelly said. “Right now, companies interested in working on fibrosis can’t find experts coming out of the universities.”
He said pop-ups can become permanent institutes in five or 10 years if they’re doing important work. “But you don’t have to test it by putting up a building,” he said.