By Professor Sir Nilesh Samani, Medical Director, British Heart Foundation

Published: 12 September 2018

The European Society of Cardiology Congress is the key annual conference for those working to beat the heartbreak caused by heart and circulatory diseases. That’s why the British Heart Foundation (BHF) launched its most ambitious research funding award ever at this year’s meeting in Munich.

The Big Beat Challenge will be a single award of up to £30 million to an international multi-disciplinary research team to identify and propose a transformational solution to a significant problem in heart and circulatory disease.

This is a challenge to scientists, clinicians, innovators and entrepreneurs to look beyond incremental gains and accelerate breakthroughs that could transform lives across the globe.

The need for change

Despite many significant achievements over the last few decades, several of which the BHF has played a role in, the mortality and morbidity burden of heart and circulatory disease remains stubbornly high. It remains the world’s number one killer, accounting for nearly 18 million deaths and immeasurable suffering around the globe every year. By 2030, the World Health Organization predicts the number of deaths will rise to 24 million annually. The need for transformative thinking to find solutions to the many challenges that exist has never been greater.

The BHF’s Big Beat Challenge is designed to highlight the urgent global need for novel approaches to tackle all forms of heart and circulatory disease, and to enable a world-class, multi-disciplinary research team to make real progress towards better detection, more effective treatment or even cures for one or more of these conditions.

Fearless thinking

If we want to bring about a change of such magnitude, we must attract expertise from a wide and diverse range of fields, and mobilise an international community of innovators who may not have previously sought to address cardiovascular research questions.

The Big Beat Challenge will push the global research community to identify a significant problem or opportunity in heart and circulatory science or medicine, which if solved or seized at scale could generate substantial progress towards real patient benefit.

This will be one of the largest and most ambitious grants of its kind. The winning team will need to mobilise knowledge, talent and resources from new areas, working on a scale above and beyond existing programmes.

Why now?

The time is right for a radical intervention. With recent advances in technologies like artificial intelligence, data processing and genome editing, the ground is primed for an audacious new initiative that moves beyond incremental gains and accelerates real breakthroughs. At the same time the massive increase in global connectivity provides more opportunities than ever before for international teams to work closely together.

The BHF has been funding high impact research for decades, and will continue to do so. The Big Beat Challenge is not intended to replace our usual mechanisms of funding – it is in addition and will demonstrate whether funding at this scale can create new opportunities and advances that are more than incremental.

Without limits

Unlike our usual funding, which is largely restricted to investigators in the UK, the Big Beat Challenge is open to anyone in the world. Applications do not need to have partners from the UK, although of course I hope that many UK researchers will also rise to the challenge.

The applicants can also come from any domain – academia, industry, technology. Indeed, we want the Big Beat Challenge to inspire people from different disciplines to come together to create innovative proposals.

Finally, we are not restricting the award to any one type of cardiovascular disease. The applicants can propose to tackle any heart or circulatory disease. Applications can focus on significant transformation for small subsets of people, or smaller but globally important changes for large numbers of people.    

What we are looking for

Scientific and technical rigour and excellence will be paramount, but we want to encourage submissions from teams that are prepared to take ‘high-risk high-reward’ approaches. No matter what the idea is, all applications will need to fulfil the following criteria:

  • Transformation: The Big Beat Challenge is intended to transform the cardiovascular research landscape for a cardiovascular disease. We want bold, innovative solutions that move beyond incremental gains, mobilising new sources of knowledge, skill and resource from multiple disciplines and sectors.
  • Without borders or boundaries: Teams must be highly collaborative, mobilising new sources of knowledge, skill and resource from multiple disciplines, sectors and countries.
  • Scope and scale: We want to see ideas that would not be possible to pursue without funding on this scale.
  • Patient relevance: The end point does not need to be clinical impact within the proposed timeframe, but we want to see a clear route to patient benefit.
  • Milestone-led: All projects must have structured project management with clear goals and milestones.
  • Engagement: Your idea could change the world and we think people will want to know about it. A willingness to share updates and engage with our supporters is essential.

Process and selecting a winner

The Big Beat Challenge will be a two-stage process – outline and full applications. We plan to launch a call for outline applications at the end of 2018, with a six-month window for applications to be made.

Those applications that are short-listed will then be given a further six months – and access to seed funding – to enable them to develop the highest quality full application. We hope to announce the winner by the middle of 2020.

This is £30m for the world’s greatest minds to tackle the world’s biggest killers. Now is the time for radical thinking, and we look forward to many excellent ideas being proposed.