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You may know Professor Tyler Cowen. The George Mason economist, New York Times and Bloomberg columnist, podcaster, and polymath has built a large following for his thoughtful views and voracious curiosity about everything from travel to food, wine, music, and the finer points of fiscal and monetary policy. 

But since the covid-19 crisis hit in 2020, Dr. Cowen has focused his attention on how to break down the barriers that slow essential medical and scientific innovation. 

He shared his views in a recent chat with Amy Proulx, the John Templeton Foundation’s Program Officer in Individual Freedom and Free Markets. Cowen describes how he spent 2020 helping disrupt the traditional model for distributing scientific funding, and building the Fast Grants program.   

Tyler told us how in early April he had a conversation with his friend Patrick Collison, the CEO of online payments processing firm Stripe, about how the need for urgent COVID-19-related scientific research simply wasn’t being met by the infrastructure to provide funding. As scientists are trying to track rapidly evolving strains of the disease, “you can’t spend a week writing up a [funding] proposal,” and waiting six and nine months to receive government funding. 

The Fast Grants model, based out of Cowen’s George Mason University, and funded by a variety of donors including Collison, Elon Musk, Jack Dorsey, and the John Templeton Foundation, offers a radically different approach. A hyper-simple proposal that takes 30 minutes to complete. A guaranteed response in under two weeks. And in the nine months since it launched, over 175 grants have been made totaling $43 million. 

Projects have explored a range of urgent topics, from RNA vaccines to monoclonal antibodies. The single biggest success, Cowen said, has been Saliva Direct. Using Fast Grants funding, the Yale University-based team developed a rapid, saliva-based COVID-19 test that was far cheaper than previous solutions. Now in use worldwide, the Saliva Direct test received high-profile attention when it was used for daily testing of players and staff during the widely lauded NBA playoff “bubble.”