Crowdfunding Science 101

August 01, 2012

I’m gearing up for my first, high stakes experiment in science crowdfunding, the details of which I will be posting in blog form in dribs and drabs over the days and weeks ahead. In a nutshell, an academic partner and I will team up to propose a self-contained, two-to-three month, one-to-two person, basic research project with relevance to psychopharmacology, mental health and substance abuse.

 

As an experimentalist by training and by disposition, I tend to wade into complex problems. Before rushing headlong into a new experiment, I remind myself of that kernel of wisdom imparted to me by my mentors: do a literature search first!

 

So that’s exactly what I did. And like a lot of great ideas whose time has come, convergence is commonplace. After poking around the Internet I discovered that someone’s already tried the experiment, but it didn’t work and I needed to figure out why.

 

For the completely uninitiated, I penned a few general thoughts on crowdfunding here; for meatier fare, I recommend perusing the blog of the SciFund Challenge, a science crowdfunding consortium of mostly ecology-centered projects organized by Jai Ranganathan (@jranganthan) and Jarrett Byrnes (@jebyrnes).

 

I think it’s safe to assume that most people are familiar with Kickstarter, the Abraham of crowdfunding sites that begat numerous descendants. What might be less known is that the science crowdfunding space is currently convulsing with competition, resulting in several different portals: RocketHub, which hosted the SciFund Challenge; Petridish, which was founded by a former venture capitalist, Matt Salzberg (@mattsalz); and Microryza, a Seattle outfit whose motto is essentially “by scientists, for scientists.” The major difference between these portals is whether they abide by the all-or-nothing rule: Petridish and Microryza do, but RocketHub lets you keep what you raise.

 

The case study I want to discuss here is an underfunded (and, alas, unsuccessful) project on Petridish called “Listening for cancer: Early detection using laser ultrasound.” This project was proposed by John A. Viator, an Associate Professor of Biological Engineering and Dermatology at the University of Missouri. Viator asked for $7,500 to purchase equipment and provide additional financial support to trainees in his lab, but he raised $2,415 from 40 backers, and according to all-or-nothing house rules, he received zero funds.

 

I spoke to Viator a few days ago and we played Monday morning quarterback. What follows is a recap of our conversation, relying on notes I made immediately after the call. Viator told me that he found out about Petridish from a colleague. Viator noticed right off the bat, as would any biomedical researcher who runs even the smallest of groups, that the typical requested funds, ranging from $500 – $5,000, would not make a dent in the budget of most academic labs. For a benchmark, my two-person lab at Princeton costs on average $15,000 to run – each month!

 

I then asked Viator about his interaction with the university grants administration office, because I suspected that they would be a bottleneck. Viator wanted to be able to say to potential backers on Petridish that their contributions would be tax-deductible, but that required accounting maneuvers by the grants office. Not surprisingly, inertia and/or inexperience with crowdfunding in the grants office meant Viator’s requests languished for several weeks. Undaunted, Viator plowed ahead.

 

As an aside, I broached the possibility of using a lab’s gift account to store the funds, and I would love to get comments/feedback below from other university scientists who are familiar with the policies of their home institutions.

 

Finally, I wanted to know if he could do it all again, what would Viator do differently the second time around. Above all else, he said that his proposal didn’t receive enough press coverage, and that next time he would conduct a more proactive media campaign. I remarked that perhaps his video call to action could have been more targeted and shorter. Most people recommend 2-3 minutes top, his was ~7 minutes long because it was a talk he had given that was on hand before he launched on Petridish. When you watch the video you get the sense that this is a scientist who gives a good talk and knows his science backwards and forwards, but I’m not sure that alone convinces the greatest number of prospective funders to open their wallets.

 

I’ll stop there and open the floor to discussion.

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4 Comments. Leave new

Abdallah Al-Hakim
08.07.12 7:09 pm

thanks for sharing this experience about crowd funding. The monetary amount is a bit low for scientist but perhaps if crowd funding showing traction – the universities or funding agencies will match the fund. Government usually like these kind of mechanisms as they get twice the value for their money. Also, few scientists have great marketing skills so I would try and engage the marketing and public relations personnel at the different research institutes.

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Ethan Perlstein
08.08.12 12:59 pm

Thanks! I like the idea of matching mechanisms. Some departments/universities will be more forward-thinking and less hidebound than others, but I guess the only way to find out is empirically.

Reply
Canucker
08.08.12 8:32 am

The most important question is what was the background/motivation of the 40 backers he did secure? I am rather sceptical of crowd-funding for research – it is likely to favour those projects which over-promise or are hyped up. Fund-raising for a cure is a lot easier than fund-raising for an esoteric piece of equipment that may or may not lead to fundamental new knowledge. But I’d bet the latter actually leads to something meaningful. Who are the backers and what are they expecting to get out of their “invest-nation”?

Reply
Ethan Perlstein
08.08.12 12:57 pm

Great question. You should email John Viator directly. As I wrote above, he was happy to speak to me about his experience.

I’m sympathetic to your skepticism about science crowdfunding as a popularity contest. There’s no doubt that some science is intrinsically more exciting, even to scientists. (Research fads are quite common, for example, in molecular & cell biology). But I think popularity in the wider society is largely a function of scientific literacy, which can be increased by outreach by scientists. Granted, it will take time for literacy to translate into popularity, and I’m sure quite a few topics will never cross that threshold, meaning some disciplines or areas of research will have a lasting advantage over others. That should be a good thing though because it will increase the probability that first-generation crowdfunding attempts will succeed, unleashing a virtuous cycle if we’re lucky. Government funding agencies should pick up the slack to ensure that unpopular, i.e., esoteric, basic research is not abandoned.

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