I understand, then, why researchers flock to the safety of institutions. Imagine studying something that nobody else is studying, for reasons you can't really articulate, without knowing what the outcome of your work will be. For the truly obsessed person, the need for validation isn't about ego; it's about sanity. You want to know there's some meaning behind the dizzying mental labyrinth that you simultaneously can't escape and also never want to leave.
One of the keys to this kind of thing working is having a community. Xerox PARC and CDG are like collective MacArthur grants. You're not funding individuals, you're putting together a community. You're trying to create an environment, a world. Not a thing. We never discussed what our ultimate goal was at PARC. It didn't look like we were doing anything for the first couple years, and Xerox was upset. But the process was surprisingly efficient, because most of that trillion-dollar return was invented in the first five years.
Oddly, one of the best models I have here is old-school correspondence. People working mostly independently on creative projects, sending each other long letters (emails) every few months with distilled thoughts and wonderings. A different kind of collaboration, but quite good.