Crowdfund my meth lab, yo

September 09, 2012

Preparations are now in full swing for our ambitious $25,000 science crowdfunding project, which will formally launch in the first week of October! We aim to fill a longstanding gap in the field of psychopharmacology: how does the class of drugs called amphetamines (below), including the notorious crystal meth, actually work?

For this project, my lab at Princeton, which has spent the last five years developing a new evolutionary approach to studying the effects of psychoactive drugs, will team up with the Sulzer Lab at Columbia Med School, a leader in the study of amphetamines for over twenty years. We will use the decades-tested technique called autoradiography, combined with high-magnification electron microscopy, to resolve once and for all where amphetamines accumulate inside brain cells.


In the next post, I will describe the nitty gritty of the science behind the project, as well as our team, in greater detail. For the remainder of this post, I want to put our proposal into context. To date, no one has achieved our stated goal in the science crowdfunding space. In fact, breaking through the $10,000 barrier is no small feat, as I was recently gently reminded by Jai Ranganathan, co-founder of the awesomeness that is The #SciFund Challenge. And even then science crowdfunding successes have come in the least cost-intensive corners of the natural sciences, like ecology, archaeology and anthropology.


So how did we arrive at $25,000, given that it’s an order of magnitude higher than the average successful science crowdfunding bid? Besides the unpersuasive argument that someday, someone will succeed in raising that kind of dough and why not us, the simple answer is the cost of labor.


In contrast to previous science crowdfunding campaigns in the $500 – $5,000 range, to demonstrate scalability in the life sciences we must not only cover the inflated costs of consumables and equipment, but we also have to pay someone to carry out the research. As I described in a series of Open Budget posts last month, a full-time, Masters-level research technician with 3+ years of experience will run you between $5,000 – $6,000 per month.


So is our goal realistic? In order to make this process data-driven from the get-go I’ve collected numbers on a few fully funded (and then some), biology-related SciFund projects from the last year, which provide a decent apples-to-apples comparison:



There were multiple paths to victory. For example, it made it much easier if you did well in the champagne demographic ($50-$200), as was the case for Siouxsie Wiles’ Evolution in Action project (second from left), which met its goal within the first two weeks and then kept chugging along, ultimately over-raising by 170%.


The more common outcome was to crush it, at least in terms of raw totals, in the beer demographic ($20-$50). Take a look at Kristina Kilgrove’s Ancient Roman DNA project (rightmost), which raked in $10,171, or 170% of the stated goal of $6,000. Out of 170 crowdfunders, 94 donated in the $20-$50 range, but this sum only amounted to around 1/3 of the total. The Lexus demographic ($250+) was key to her success, and constituted close to half of her total.


How did she do it? A great summary of her strategy explains that she targeted several different receptive audiences with personalized messages, and then invested several hours of online promotion each day of the campaign. But she was also fortunate to receive favorable mainstream media exposure (here and here), which, if I had to guess, enabled her to snag some of those critical angel funders.


If I extrapolate from Kilgrove’s donor distribution, we’ll need 400-600 funders to reach our stated goal. Friends and family are the first stop on the crowdfunding whistle stop tour! I have over 600 friends on Facebook but I doubt 90% of them would fund a basic science project, so FB alone won’t cut it. I’m just south of 1,000 Twitter followers, and my following is enriched for Open Science devotees, academic and industry scientists, and science writers to whom our crowdfunding pitch would be appealing. Based on one analysis by Jarrett Byrnes, the other co-founder of The #SciFund Challenge, a healthy Twitter following certainly helps. And of course I and the other team members will tap our professional email and LinkedIn networks, but will that be enough?


The wild card is whether we can level up, and leveling up can take many shapes in the Internet Age. Kilgrove’s Ancient Roman DNA project received the equivalent of a massive retweet when her story was written up on a CNN science blog, which is a testament to the reach of professional science bloggers like Ed Yong (@edyong209), who penned that piece. Based on my own experiences poring over Google Analytics traffic data for my lab website, if you want orders-of-magnitude vs. several fold changes, it really helps if someone with > 100,000 followers mentions you. The best example was when a massively followed science writer retweeted a link to one of my blog posts last month:


Even though I reached a theoretical audience size in the 10,000s as a result of my own tweeting and my followers’ retweets (first spike), a single mention by a massively followed tastemaker brought more unique visitors to my site in a 48-hour span than several weeks worth of garden-variety referrals. So the lesson for me is if I want this crowdfunding project to succeed (and possibly even break through the stated goal), I will need to get noticed by at least a few tastemakers.


Please stay tuned for the next post in this series, which deals with project perks and donation price points.

And here’s the previous post on the genesis of Crowdsourcing Discovery.


  • Chris Regnery

    As a student, I do not have all that much to give, but I will do the best I can. But this new idea towards funding research has me quite excited, and I certainly hope to see more like it in the future. Good luck!

    • Ethan Perlstein

      Thanks! Your evangelism is priceless!