The science crowdfunding landscape

October 20, 2013

115 science projects have been crowdfunded, but crowdfunding can’t compete with grants — yet.

As the dominant all-comers crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter’s fundraising stats are leading indicators of where charitable online crowdfunding is headed. Just yesterday Kickstarter proclaimed that over 50,000 projects have been successfully funded to the tune of $836 million. They could barely contain their glee:

 

 

For over a year, I’ve been observing a sliver of the rapidly expanding crowdfunding pie: science projects. By science projects I specifically mean basic research projects that are traditionally (and almost exclusively) funded by the government. The 115 successfully crowdfunded science projects from four different crowdfunding platforms that I will analyze here in broad strokes is admittedly a puny dataset — less than 1% of Kickstarter’s overall fundraising achievement. But it’s a bona fide dataset nonetheless, something that could not be claimed at the start of 2013.

 

The majority of these 115 science projects fit the academic profile: professionally trained, university-employed, grant-dependent researchers asking focused research questions. But there are also examples of unconventional projects led by self-taught (aka citizen) scientists, student-led, e.g., iGEM teams, and pedagogical research. As I’ll describe in a followup post, the most interesting development in the science crowdfunding space is the emergence of research advocacy, which is catalyzing collaborations that might not have happened otherwise, or that might not have been funded in this hostile budget climate.

 

Let’s dive into the dataset, starting with a bird’s eye view. Cumulatively, 115 science projects raised $5,082,028 from 47,958 donors, with two megaprojects comprising over half of these totals. Since the average is thrown off by those whoppers, the median is more useful. The median project goal is $3,029, and the median number of project donors is 39. For context, the median science project goal is roughy equal to the average Kickstarter or Indiegogo project goal.

 

Below is a plot of the total number of donors (x-axis) versus the total amount raised (y-axis) for 115 science projects across four different crowdfunding platforms:

 

goals vs donors

 

We all know Kickstarter. Indiegogo is in second place behind Kickstarter in terms of volume and reputation, but it actually came online two years before Kickstarter in 2007. RocketHub is a second-tier alternative to Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and one of the first platforms to feature science projects, including Crowd4Discovery. Microryza differs from the other three sites by being both younger and exclusively focused on science. (Full disclosure: from February to September I was an independent contractor for Microryza, running their blog and mentoring first-time project leaders).

 

The above plot reveals two interesting facts about the distribution of science projects. First, the ratio between dollars and donors is roughly 100-to-1 across three orders of magnitude, from $1,000 goals to $1,000,000 goals. In other words, the average donation for science projects is $100. Technically, the average donation falls within a range of $100-$60 per donor. This range is consistent with non-science projects and is probably a universal fundraising statistic that reflect economic and psychological drivers of charitable giving.

 

Second, there is a ceiling between $25,000 and $35,000 above which Microryza and RocketHub science projects don’t go, but above which Kickstarter and Indiegogo science projects do boldly go. What’s causing this separation? The answer appears to boil down to incentives, i.e., whether science projects offer products or not. There is also a role for the size and engagement of each crowdfunding platform’s donor community, especially repeat donors. Briefly put: tangible rewards shift the average donation size higher than people might spontaneously donate, and built-in communities on Kickstarter, and to a less extent on Indiegogo, means a larger captive audience.

 

Bear in mind that Kickstarter as a rule only accepts projects that yield or offer a tangible outcome. This strict editorial policy limits the types of science projects that may appear on Kickstarter. The biggest science project on Kickstarter is called Arkyd, an asteroid-hunting telescope that will be launched into orbit around Earth in 2015. Arkyd raised $1.5M from over 17,000 donors, and incentivized backers by offering them a chance to point the telescope at any celestial object for $200, or a space selfie for $25. Another wildly successful Kickstarter science project called Glowing Plants raised $484,013 from 8,433 donors. Glowing Plants offered prospective backers genetically modified plants that glow in the dark thanks to an inserted firefly gene, technology that was prototyped in academia but never commercialized. For $100, backers receive a grown glowing plant shipped to them in the mail. Curiosity-driven science is being advanced by these projects — one perk at a time.

 

Science projects on Indiegogo resemble Kickstarter science projects in that they incentivize basic research with tangible outcomes. Two different teams raised over $600,000 for human microbiome sequencing projects. The underlying science of microbiomes is vast and unexplored. So uBiome (a startup) and the American Gut Project (an academic effort) turned to Indiegogo to offer microbiome sequencing kits for $99 to $199 a pop in exchange for donations — the crowdfunded version of 23andMe. The biggest science project in the dataset is called Scanadu, which raised $1.66M from 8,522 donors. At $199 per device, backers will receive their own “medical grade Tricorder,” with which they can self-track their physiology.

 

Products and engaged platform communities make it much easier for science projects to raise oodles of cash, and the sky is the limit depending on what kind of science the public is captivated by. But that doesn’t explain why Microryza and RocketHub science projects top out around $25,000 to $35,000. As I’ll explain below, this ceiling results from a combination of (1) grant dependence, (2) academic conservatism, and (3) ideological resistance. To explore this question further, let’s first remove the ten Kickstarter and Indiegogo science projects and just focus on Microryza and RocketHub science projects:

 

goals vs donors_MRYZA & RH

 

Note that Microryza and RocketHub science projects have a nearly identical statistical profile even though Microryza is an all-or-nothing platform that doesn’t require tangible outcomes, while RocketHub is a keep-what-you-raise platform that requires perks. 56 Microryza science projects raised $321,640 from 3,022 donors with an average project size of $5,743. 49 RocketHub science projects raised $196,650 from 2,958 donors with an average project size of $4,013. The majority of RocketHub science projects are the result of a partnership with the SciFund Challenge, a “by academic scientists, for academic scientists” approach led by Jai Ranganathan, Jarrett Byrnes and Zen Faulkes.

 

Back to the $25k-$35k ceiling. When I say grant dependence — I would even go so far as to call it an addiction — I mean academics are accustomed to funding multi-year research programs instead of specific projects or milestones. It’s bloody expensive to do basic research, especially the part where you have to pay people to carry out and analyze experiments. Laboratory startup costs can range from $50,000 to $100,000.

 

When I say academic conservatism, I mean academics are notoriously set in their ways, ironically often in spite of empirical evidence. For example, most academics with any sense have been trashing Impact Factor for years, yet the relentless pursuit of glamor publications continues unabated. Despite glaring flaws in the government funding enterprise (highlighted brilliantly by Prof Henry Bourne here, here and here), young assistant professors swallow the status quo without protest, and a generational window of change shuts forever. And most established professors have never had a job outside of academia, so trainees are socialized by mentors who themselves ritualistically reenact traditions passed down to them from their mentors, and so on.

 

When I say ideological resistance, I mean most academics are staunch defenders of government intervention in basic research, even though the current arrangement is a blip in the history of science. I’ve often heard academics claim that crowdfunding is a terrible idea because we already do it in the form of taxation. What’s more, these same folks crush any discussion of crowdfunding because they fear it will somehow crowd out public funds, or encourage policymakers to reduce government agency budgets. After 16 days of US government shutdown that shuttered research agencies like NIH and NSF, and sequestration before that, what sane person believes that government-sponsored research is under siege from crowdfunding? If anything, crowdfunding can be a refuge from the budget storm.

 

In my next post on science crowdfunding, I will take a detailed look at some exciting recent projects led by patient advocacy groups.

 

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14 Comments. Leave new

The inventive bit is interesting. I’ve had long conversations with folk about whether they are necessary or not. I view givebacks as an essential part of the enterprise, as they’re creating more of a connection between donor and scientist. While I agree that KS and IG have those more woven in to their fabric, let’s not forget that RH projects also have incentives, and yet hasn’t reached the same heights. On the other hand, RH isn’t curated in the same way as KS (and I don’t know if IG is curated). So, there’s that as well. Note also that for SciFund, we encourage folk to start small if it’s their first time trying out crowdfunding and outreach. Unless they have a large outreach apparatus already built, we encourage them to be realistic. They’re also often grad students (that’s the majority of the SciFunders so far) who often need less than a full up and running lab, so that may also skew results down a bit.

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Ethan O. Perlstein
10.21.13 12:41 pm

Thanks for the comment, Jarrett! Great clarifications about SciFund, too.

I’ve written before (mostly on Microryza’s blog, e.g., http://blog.microryza.com/locally-sourced-science/) about the local sourcing effect, which I think can substitute for researchers bringing their own following to the table. But it certainly helps with the initial downpayment on a campaign when one can activate their own personal following.

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Another important component that you’re missing in the post is the interaction of academics with their institutions. Our first campaign we did, we got “in trouble” with the university’s office of giving. The second time, it took us over a month to come to an agreement with the giving folks; they really didn’t want us to do crowdfunding. We eventually went with Indiegogo because (unlike Kickstarter) it allows the money to pass through a non-profit partner so that our university could receive the funds cleanly. Since then, academics at other institutions have contacted me to ask how to get their university to let them do crowdfunding. There is significant institutional inertia against it, because it messes up the traditional ways that universities raise (and control) money and donors. Even academics that want to do crowdfunding are being blocked by their institutions.

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Ethan O. Perlstein
10.21.13 12:45 pm

Great point, Margaret! And thanks for the comment.

I should have included advancement and development offices in the section dealing with academic conservatism. I have repeatedly heard about the friction some academics face from their own administrations.

However, some institutions are more forward thinking than others. For example, last month GA Tech unveiled its own crowdfunding platform, and I know that Northeastern already have its own crowdfunding platform called Catalyst, but it’s currently focused on student-led projects.

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Nick Dragojlovic
10.21.13 1:23 pm

Given the limited size of successful projects on Microryza relative to Indiegogo or Kickstarter, how do you view the emergence of numerous science-specific portals (e.g., health-specific portals like Consano or the independent university portals powered by USEED)? Is this likely to splinter the donor community and limit the ability of researchers to raise large amounts (to, for example, fund a clinical trial), or might it help to better engage specific donor segments (disease advocates, alumni, etc…) that would otherwise not become involved?

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Ethan O. Perlstein
10.21.13 1:56 pm

I think more science-specific portals and segmentation are a good thing because most scientists have never crowdfunded and most people have never backed a science project. With all this room to grow, and the fact that the basic research enterprise is already segmented into discipline-based communities, the more the merrier. My next post on science crowdfunding will expand on these points.

I’m a big fan of the innovations of patient advocates and advocacy groups. Consano is one of my favorite examples of this. Consano is an early adopter of project review/evaluation, and it makes sense given that they are rebelling against a Big Foundation model that doesn’t place engagement with the actual science or scientists at the fore.

For the big projects with ambitious goals, scientists and/or advocates will continue to flock to the established platforms like KS or IG. For example, see the smashing success of findAKUre’s Cure Black Bone disease campaign on Indiegogo — $98,685 at final count. With time though we’ll see campaigns like that on Microryza and Consano.

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E Monier-Williams
11.15.13 8:49 pm

I’m not convinced the fragmentation will continue (or should). Reminds me a lot of when Facebook broke wide in 2007 and suddenly universities spent a lot of time building customized social communities until realizing that it was difficult to compete against the population flocking to the market leader.

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doctorzen
10.21.13 5:56 pm

“RocketHub science projects raised $196,650 from 2,958 donors with an average project size of $4,013.”

Hm. At some point we tallied #SciFund as having brought in more: http://scifundchallenge.org/blog/2012/12/15/scifund-in-3-rounds/

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Ethan O. Perlstein
10.22.13 12:06 am

I only included projects that were 100% or more funded. Also, RocketHub seems to have de-affiliated some SciFund projects, which don’t appear in the SciFund affiliated sort, so I might have missed a few.

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doctorzen
10.22.13 9:33 am

Yes, I missed that “fully funded” detail. I sort of came to that realization after I posted my comment. Ooops.

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Timothy Read
10.29.13 10:55 am

Great blog! As an academic I am very interested in Crowdfunding and really hope the movement continues to grow. I can see a couple of problems for the enterprise in the near future. The first are indirect costs – the money that institutions in US charge large funders to build labs and keep the lights on. Will universities force academics to build in indirect costs and will the donors on crowdfunding sites be prepared to pay? Also, the lack of peer review, which is a complete pain for NSF and NIH grants but, acts to filter out projects that look great on paper but offer little realistic chance of success. Are donors going to be burned by putting money into projects that ultimately are complete no-hopers?

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Hi, I’ve previously looked at this area and I’ve been asked many times if crowdfunding could be used to either encourage investors to support start-up or be used to raise money to match proof of concept and translational research grants. I’m now running a conference in London on January 16th on crowdfunding the university sector and I’m looking for examples whether that be to support start-up, student enterprise or engagement of alumni. Please write to me at cgplconsulting1@virginmedia.com if you have examples that you don’t mind me using or you want to take part? I’m coming around to thinking that I should also be featuring research grants too. Thanks for an interesting post.

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E Monier-Williams
11.15.13 8:47 pm

Great post, and it confirms my assumptions about the current science-focused crowdfunding platforms. My colleague and I are co-leading WaveCheck on Indiegogo right now on behalf of two researchers ($44,000+ with about two weeks to go; see: http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/wavecheck-is-your-breast-cancer-chemo-working/x/2718412). We’re funding a clinical study for translational breast cancer research. Your data about donations certainly correlate with our experience.

We work for MaRS Innovation, the commercialization agent for the two research institutions the academics work for–being arm’s length allows us to bring marketing and business to bear on the task while doing our best to sidestep the conservatism you describe. Our campaign combines art, medicine and science–I would be interested in your feedback.

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Heather Etchevers
07.29.14 8:13 am

Well, shoot. I am just coming to this, thanks to Nick Dragojlovic’s paper and you finding me, rather than me doing my research in depth ahead of time. Moral of the story – it’s better to get some pros in there to do the money scrounging. Much like grant offices, but more innovative and flexible, so that we researchers can stick to what we’re proven to be good at already. In France, that idea just hasn’t come to a head, yet. Researchers have to be good at everything, or else tank. Or not come up with original subjects of investigation. Then again, at least the country is aware of the importance of rare disease research.

Getting to segmentation – the only thing that made me think that finally crowd-funding might be worth my time was that RE(ACT) Community promised to keep things to rare disease advocacy on one hand, and has a peer scientific advisory board with some big guns, to vet projects on the other. Mine is their first project at the moment. Yes, it’s risky and it may be the tenth that benefits from building visibility someday, or perhaps the whole thing will fold, but I am cautiously optimistic.

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