Crowdfunding Science 101
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.