Funding CRISPR: Understanding the role of government and private sector actors in transformative innovation systems

David Fajardo-Ortiz, Stephan Hornbostel, Maywa Montenegro-de-Wit, Annie Shattuck


CRISPR/Cas has the potential to revolutionize medicine, agriculture, and the way we understand life itself. Understanding the trajectory of innovation, how it is influenced and who pays for it, is essential for such a transformative technology. The University of California and the Broad/Harvard/MIT systems are the two most prominent academic institutions involved in the research and development of CRISPR/Cas. Here we present a model of co-funding networks for CRISPR/Cas research at these institutions, using funding acknowledgments to build connections. We map papers representing 95% of citations on CRISPR/Cas from these institutions grouped by the stage each represents in the research translation process (as a biological phenomenon, as a research tool, as a set of technologies, and applications of that technology), and use a novel technique to analyse the relationships between the structures of the co-funding networks, the phase of research, and funding sources. The co-funding subnetworks were similar in that US government research funding played the decisive role in early stage research. Research at Broad/Harvard/MIT is also strongly supported by philanthropic/charitable organizations in later stages of the translation process, clustered around certain topics. Applications for CRISPR technologies were underrepresented, which bolsters findings on the preponderance of the US private sector in developing applications, and the disproportionate number of Chinese institutions filing patents for industrial and food systems applications. These network models raise fundamental questions about the role of the state in supporting breakthrough innovations, risk, reward, and the influence of the private sector and philanthropy over the trajectory of transformative technologies.