In Sharmil Modi’s line of work, $40,000 is basically a rounding error. As an investment analyst at Baupost Group, the giant Boston hedge fund, Modi is routinely involved in financial transactions many multiples of that.
So he was floored when he learned that some scientists at the Broad Institute, the Cambridge biomedical research center whose lofty mission is to “completely transform medicine and biology,” lack the money to do research projects that would cost $40,000 or less. Eyeing his affluent colleagues, he wondered if they could help close that funding gap.
“I looked around the room and thought, there are people of means here, and they know people of means, so why hasn’t the hat been passed around?” Modi, 38, recalled. “Sometimes it’s hard to square how it’s possible that they could do so much with those small dollars and why those projects aren’t being funded.”
His astonishment has led to a partnership between up-and-coming scientists in need of funding and young professionals who may not be able to give millions — yet — but can perhaps give thousands, and are pooling their money to maximize their impact.
Called BroadIgnite, it is an incubator not just for emerging scientists, but also for emerging philanthropists.
The program, formed in September and run by the Broad Institute, has raised $200,000 from at least 20 donors, enabling five Broad scientists to launch research projects that cost $40,000 apiece.
For fund-raisers constantly trying to cultivate new donors, BroadIgnite’s members represent the holy grail: well-paid professionals relatively new to charitable giving but financially positioned to one day be powerful forces on the philanthropy scene.
And for donors, the program holds the promise that their dollars could contribute to major breakthroughs in science.
Safraz Ishmael, 38, a lawyer at Proskauer Rose in Boston who expects to make a donation, views BroadIgnite as “a way to donate to something where you fund a specific person with a specific research goal and see specific results,” unlike some types of giving, when “you don’t know where your money is going.”
All five projects funded so far involve pioneering but high-risk research by promising but early-stage scientists — the kind of research that, despite its modest price tag, government funding sources like the National Institutes of Health are reluctant to finance precisely because it is so risky.
“That’s where philanthropy can step in and have a major impact,” said Justine Levin-Allerhand, chief development officer at the Broad Institute, where scientists from Harvard and MIT collaborate on sweeping projects. “To think ambitiously, you don’t always need a lot of money. Sometimes you just need a little money.”
“A little” is a relevant measurement, of course. But compared to the large-scale philanthropic funding the Broad has received since it was created about a decade ago, including $700 million from founders Eli and Edythe Broad and $825 million from businessman Ted Stanley, the tens of thousands needed by some junior researchers is pocket change.
BroadIgnite grew out of a presentation that the Broad’s president, Dr. Eric Lander, gave at Baupost Group at the invitation of company president Seth Klarman, who sits on the Broad’s board and whose Klarman Family Foundation has given the institute $32.5 million.
Lander’s description of the funding challenges captivated several Baupost employees, who took Lander up on his offer to visit the Broad and learn more about its research.
Initially, the Baupost employees wondered if they could contribute on a scale that would make a difference, but Lander assured them they could.
“We’re taking a chance with what we view to be relatively small amounts of money — 20, 30, 40 thousand dollars — on young scientists and their ideas relatively early in their careers,” Modi said. “To be clear, $40,000 or $50,000 isn’t going to create a breakthrough that’s going to cure cancer or diabetes,” but it may get a scientist to a more advanced stage of research that could qualify for more traditional funding, he added.
One research project being funded by BroadIgnite, which funds work costing between $30,000 and $50,000, is aimed at treating drug-resistant childhood leukemia. Another is trying to determine the genetic cause of rare muscle diseases like muscular dystrophy.
“It’s funding that provides the freedom for these scientists to pursue creative ideas,” said Luke Simpson, 36, a Baupost asset manager and BroadIgnite donor.
“It’s very easy to buy a ticket to a charity event or to sponsor somebody’s run or race, but this is getting involved in a way that most of us haven’t before,” added Diana DeSocio, 40, a director at Baupost and donor to BroadIgnite.
Several BroadIgnite donors interviewed by the Globe declined to disclose how much they have contributed, and the Broad would not provide a range of donation sizes, calling that information confidential. But rough math indicates that some gifts may have been in the five-figure range.
BroadIgnite also gives donors the opportunity to meet the scientists they are funding and visit them in their labs, offering a rare front-row view of the impact of their charitable dollars.
The funders and scientists even have opportunities to socialize together. At a recent BroadIgnite gathering at the sleek Café ArtScience in Kendall Square, about 70 young professionals from the financial services, legal, real estate, and tech sectors drank cucumber cocktails and feasted at a raw bar while listening to Broad scientists explain their research.
“It had oysters and fancy food, so it was clear they were going after a certain demographic,” said Swagata Chakrabarti, 39, the president of a small Boston-area company called TeenLife Media. She said she is considering making a donation.
The network effect of philanthropy was on full display: Several guests said they were friends, coworkers or college classmates of existing donors and arrived knowing little about BroadIgnite but left interested in contributing.
One attendee and prospective donor was Matthew Tambiah, 38, founder of a young company called FastMath. He said he is not in a financial position to contribute now, but would consider it “certainly down the road.”
“It’s great to be supporting younger scientists with new and innovative ideas who need much smaller amounts of money but could have a big impact,” he said.