10 February 2014

Will crowdfunding help biomedical research?

Denny Luan is one of the founders of the project, formerly known as “Microryza”, and on February 5, as part of the rebranding strategy, renamed “Experiment”. The website of this project is a potentially revolutionary platform, the purpose of which is to do for science what the Kickstarter project website has done for the entertainment industry. According to Luan, the goal of his team is exclusively the democratization of knowledge. Science should not be hidden from the general public behind monastery walls. He says he wants to change the nature of access to science, which should be publicly available in real time.

In short, the concept of crowdfunding is that sites such as Experiment and Kickstarter offer an alternative method of financing creative or academic projects via the Internet.

In particular, if you have songs for an album that you would like to record, or a script for a movie that you would like to shoot, you can use Kickstarter to advertise your project and invite interested people or organizations to participate. As a rule, participation consists in making small anonymous donations to finance the project.

Crowdfunding has been used as a source of funding for human rights campaigns, as well as for the resumption of filming of cult television shows and the appearance on stage of musicians who are not favored by show business.

The purpose of the Experiment project is to use the enthusiasm that has arisen around projects that have received funding through crowdfunding for the benefit of science.

The idea is that scientists, instead of relying on limited resources of state grants and charity, will be able to finance their projects through donations from interested people. These may be people suffering from a disease that a scientist is planning to search for treatment methods for, or enthusiasts inspired by a particular research direction.

However, financing research work is different from financing the recording of a music album or the shooting of a film.

The difficulty faced by Luan and his colleagues is not only to make the financing of scientific research no less attractive to potential donors than the fascinating world of cinema and music. They must ensure the existence of a social platform that supports interest in these projects as they are implemented and progress through the various stages of final product development.

Despite the fact that the main crowdfunding sites – Kickstarter and Indiegogo – have achieved some success in financing scientific projects, Luan believes that a separate platform is needed for this direction.

To date, Microryza/Experiment has only one competitor – a website petridish.org which, judging by the lack of updates since 2012, is completely inactive.

It is important to note the fact that Luan and the second co–founder of the Experiment project, Cindy Wu, are themselves young scientists - former graduates of the University of Washington, who in 2012 resorted to the services of Microryza to finance their projects.

During conversations with their supervisors, they realized that all researchers are frustrated by the difficulties associated with great competition during the process of obtaining funding. When going through this process, 80% of projects are rejected. At the same time, on average, a scientist spends 12 weeks a year on drafting projects, and the average age of receiving the first grant in the field of biomedical research is 42 years.

Can crowdfunding transform research funding?Theoretically, crowdfunding is a viable model for attracting funds and media attention to small projects in the early stages of development, as well as to risky proposals, in which the main funding institutions (the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the US National Science Foundation (NSF)) are very reluctant to invest.

However, Luan believes that crowdfunding opportunities are not limited to this. According to him, in the currently unfavorable situation, even projects that meet the requirements of the NIH and NSF do not receive sufficient funding.

However, the scale of crowdfunding is still very far from medical research funded from traditional sources.

According to one of Microryza's most successful clients, Sonia Vallabh, crowdfunding of scientific research is a great idea, but it is on a completely different level compared to federal grants and large–scale charity. The scientific project of the Prion Alliance family research duo, of which Wallab is a member, who raised $17,000, is currently the Microryza/Experiment record holder.

Wallab notes that at the present stage crowdfunding is a useful and relatively fast tool for financing small pilot experiments, the purpose of which is to obtain preliminary data that can later be used when applying for larger funding.

Some critics argue that the nature of scientific crowdfunding allows you to receive funding only for the most social and attractive projects for the media.

For example, projects to excavate dinosaur remains and develop methods to get rid of spam have received funding far exceeding the stated amounts. At the same time, a project dedicated to the study of post-traumatic shock in military veterans, 6 days before the expiration of the application period, had only $ 10 in its account out of the claimed 11,900.

However, the project of Wallab and her husband Eric Minikel really inspired people. Their story went beyond the community of Microryza users, who are considered to be obsessed with science, and was covered in such popular publications as The New Yorker.

Wallab is a carrier of a rare mutation that causes fatal familial insomnia – a rare prion disease, the incidence of which is only 1 case per million. Patients with this disease die soon after the first symptoms appear.

After the death of Wallab's mother in 2010, Sonya and her husband, who had previously had no connection with scientific activities, decided to devote their lives to studying genetically. They studied at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and became volunteers in neurogenetics laboratories.

Their initial application on the Microryza website, which aimed to raise $8,000 to conduct experiments on a mouse model, elicited an enthusiastic and sympathetic response. As a result, 215% of the funds from the initially declared amount were collected.

Wallab notes that as an unconventional funding model, Microryza provides researchers with favorable conditions to share their history, personal motivation and scientific plans with potential donors.

Traceability, reliability, transparencyCurrently, Luan and his colleagues are analyzing all proposed projects for scientific credibility, as well as checking whether the applicants are who they say they are.

However, the next stage in the development of the service will be a thorough verification of the reliability of projects carried out by a group of independent experts. This will help convince the people involved in the financing of the accuracy and adequacy of the results obtained.

Perhaps another essential element of crowdfunding will need to be revised – the anonymity of donors. When asked whether the anonymity of donations could raise any ethical issues, Luan replied that from an ethical point of view, too much interest in a funded study could undoubtedly raise questions. He admits that solving this problem is a rather difficult task, but states that he and his team believe in absolute transparency, as well as that any possible ethical difficulties can be smoothed out by providing additional transparency and trust-based strategies.

After the rebranding and the announcement of a partnership with the SciFund Challenge project, which brought more than 30 new proposals, Experiment, which takes 5% of the money collected by successfully funded projects as a reward, plans to conquer new heights in the process of becoming a powerful tool for ensuring the relationship between researchers and potential sources of funding.

Danny Luan and his colleagues do not regret promising careers in science, which they exchanged for the creation of a startup company. Luan declares that neither he nor his colleagues want to return to the broken system. On the contrary, they want to do something that will have a positive impact on this system and help other young scientists.

Evgeniya Ryabtseva
Portal "Eternal youth" http://vechnayamolodost.ru according to Medical News Today:
Crowdfunding is all the rage, but can it work for medical research?


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