With the number of animals used in science rising due to greater investment in research, the scientific community needs to look for innovative ways to reduce our dependency on animal models and to make sure that when they are used, it is to maximum benefit and to the highest welfare standards. The National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) has recently announced the 2012 CRACK ITChallenge Competition, an open-innovation initiative that takes challenges identified by industry and researchers and hands them to small business and academia to find solutions that will replace, refine and reduce animal use in science. Now in its second year, this is a great idea with tangible benefits for animals and for science, and the good news is charities can be involved too!
What is CRACK IT then?
The NC3Rs has been around since 2004. It’s funded by government, charities and industry to support the 3Rs – replacement, refinement and reduction of animals in research. It funds research, produces practical information resources, and is always on hand to offer advice about animal research and the 3Rs.You can see the many facets of its work here.
CRACK IT is its latest venture. With the current economic climate we are all concerned about innovation and commercialisation – generating new things and making money from our discoveries. This can go hand in hand with the 3Rs: more reliable and predictive models (animals, computers, cell cultures etc.) will aid drug development to help us find the next blockbuster, make toxicology testing more efficient to save money and produce better science, which in turn leads to more discoveries. All whilst reducing animal research.
There are two parts to CRACK IT, but both centre around “open-innovation” – opening yourself up to external influences to aid the research and development process.
First, there’s a web-based hub where people developing new technologies or approaches that could have 3Rs benefits can gain exposure for their work, forge collaborations to further develop their technology and get advice from the NC3Rs team. Basically it hooks people with ideas up to people who can help make it happen and people who will want to use the product at the end of the day.
The second strand of CRACK IT is the Challenges Competition, which reverses that approach, asking industry and researchers what their problems are. The CRACK IT team then works with the company or institution to identify 3Rs potential and define a challenge, which is then showcased to the wider scientific community to be cracked. Because the challenge is based on an actual need there is more likely to be a marketable product at the end of the project.
How does it work?
There are five challenges up for grabs in the 2012 round. You can view them online now and people interested in getting involved are invited to the launch event where they can meet the challengers to discuss the projects and find potential new partners to work with to solve the challenge. The round opens for applications at the launch event in September and closes in November.
Academics and small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) are invited to submit proposals (collaborations are allowed) to the competition, which will be run through the UK Technology Strategy Board’s Small Business Research Initiative (which is a similar and much larger competition initiative run by the government). Applications go through an initial expert review with the best ones progressing to a Dragons’ Den-style interview. Winners will be announced in February.
Each challenge is sponsored by the industry or institution challenger, who provides in-kind contributions like reagents, data or staff time. The NC3Rs provides the money with contracts worth between £500k and £1m. Unlike other NC3Rs funding streams, there are 6 month milestone appraisal meetings between the sponsors, winning applicants and the NC3Rs to ensure everything is on track. At the end of the process the academics or SMEs will have a product that they can then make money from and will own all of the intellectual property and the challenger will have the solution to help their business and advance the 3Rs.
How can charities get involved?
In two ways: they could set a challenge or they could be involved in a collaboration.
For the first time, this year one of the challenges has come from the public sector. MRC Harwell (a centre dedicated to research using mice) has set the “Rodent Little Brother” challenge. They want to develop ways of monitoring mouse behaviour without transferring them from their home cage to other cages; this would cut down on the number of animals needed, reduce costs and keeps the mouse with its friends (which it probably prefers). Charities that run their own institutes or identify need through talking to their researchers could come up with future challenges.
Charities are also in an excellent position to bring together academics and other experts to tackle the challenges. Five out of six challenges last year were taken on by collaborations and although it’s not happened yet, there’s no reason why charities couldn’t bring some expertise to a collaboration. Some challenges are disease-specific which is perfect for charities. Some of our members have experience of spin outs which could play a part too.
I can see CRACK IT growing and it would be great to see charities becoming more involved in years to come. But for the time being, please do tell your research networks about the competitions. And maybe I’ll see some of you at the launch!
If you would like to know more, email the CRACK IT team at email@example.com.