How to use crowdfunding to support your research

It won’t replace NIH grants yet, but crowdfunding can help offset scientific funding cuts, recipients say

The numbers from a recent survey published by the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology tell a grim story:

  • The US National Institutes of Health is cutting $1.7 billion from its 2013 budget.
  • Federal R&D investments have been reduced by 30% since 2004.
  • 80% of 2013 Nondefense Discretionary Science Survey respondents spend more time writing grants now than in 2010.
  • 67% received less grant money than in 2010.
  • Only 2% received funds from their organizations to make up for the loss of grant funds.

The implications of the findings are clear, Dr. Jeanne Garbarino (@JeanneGarb) Director of Science Outreach at Rockefeller University, said in a presentation titled "Crowdfunding in Academia: An Emerging Funding Mechanism for Science Research" at the New York Academy of Sciences on September 16.

"People in academia are chain grant writing — they're submitting one grant and making sure the next one is ready to go," she said. "If you don't have private funds coming in, you have to be grant writing almost every second of the day."

Jeanne Garbarino, PhD (Photo by Marilynn Larkin)The good news is, crowdfunding has emerged as a strategy that can take some of the pressure off. As defined by Wikipedia, crowdfunding is "the collective effort of individuals who network and pool their money in order to support efforts initiated by other people or organizations," Dr. Garbarino pointed out. She then refined the definition for science research.

I view science crowdfunding as a potential feedback mechanism to help scientists target interested parties to fund their research, allowing for greater transparency and accountability. People have been saying that science is inaccessible, that scientists are locked up in their ivory towers and we don't how our tax dollars being used. Crowdfunding could be a mechanism to help improve that system, which can lead to both increased publicity and financial contributions.

That said, researchers embarking on a crowdfunding campaign need to be realistic. A campaign is unlikely to fund an entire project, but it can help offset funding losses. According to Dr. Garbarino, who is also acting as Chief Editor of Rockefeller's The Incubator blog, co-organizer of SpotOnNYC, Director of Media Ventures for Neurodome, and biology editor for Double X Science, these real-life examples show how crowdfunding can enable scientists to:

  • Supplement existing studies — Using Petridish, Erica Hermsen, a master's student at Antioch University in New Hampshire, raised money that enabled her to increase the length of her study on cheetah conservation, essentially doubling her sample size.
  • Fund experiments — Also using RocketHub, Dr. Ethan Perlstein, formerly of Princeton University, surpassed his crowdfunding goal of $25,000 and is using the funds for a series of experiments to identify where amphetamines act in the brain.

However, even a relatively modest campaign is likely to take a full-time commitment — or very long nights after work, chores and putting kids to bed. "You have to be aggressive, you have to keep your campaign out in front of people, you have to contact the media and be a bit of a pusher," Dr. Garbarino said. "If you want to make it happen, you have to be up for that challenge."

Campaign basics

What's needed for a successful campaign? Overall, four basic elements, according to Dr. Garbarino:

  • Broad public appeal — Create a compelling narrative that tells people why they should care about your research and how it can help the public good.
  • Excellent marketing strategies — Package your story using text, visuals and if possible, video. Harness your social network, contact journalists, use all social media outlets.
  • Creative donor rewards — Incentivize people to donate with unique rewards. Dr. Garbarino's campaign on behalf of NEURODOME — which aims to create a planetarium show of the brain— rewarded people who donated $5 with a public thank you; those who contributed $5,000 or more to the campaign can have their brains imaged using functional magnetic resonance imaging, with the resulting data incorporated into the show.
  • Charitable donation status, if possible — Some people are more willing to donate if they can get a tax break.

Which platform should you use?

The growing popularity of crowdfunding has led to a "mini dotcom-style boom for different types of crowdfunding platforms," Dr. Garbarino observed, referring to the late 1990s and early 2000s, which saw a huge burst of Internet-based companies (dotcoms). At the most basic level, a crowdfunding platform orchestrates the transfer of payment from individual donors to project developers.

Are all the platforms similar? Not by a long shot. Here are some points to consider:

  • Funding model — There are two basic models for science research. In the "all or nothing" model, money is only collected from contributors if the project developer's  fundraising goal —X amount of money raised by a specific date — is met; if the goal is not met, no money is collected. In the "keep it all" model, collected funds are turned over to the developer regardless of whether the project goal is met. People who choose all or nothing generally do so because they want to work with a better known platform and are spurred on by the pressure of having to get donations in a concentrated period of time.
  • Project type — Not all crowdfunding platforms support scientific research. In fact, one of the best known platforms, Kickstarter, does not. For NEURODOME, Dr. Garbarino and her colleagues were able to get around that fact by positioning the project as "educational" rather than scientific.
  • Commissions — Crowdfunding platforms are not free, Dr. Garbarino stressed. "Expect to shave off an average of 8% to 10% of your collected funds and pay it to the platform."

In addition to the platforms previously mentioned, she suggested checking out, among others, Microryza, Fundageek, Fundly and AngelList. She also mentioned two universities that have adopted crowdfunding for specific research projects underway at the respective institutions. USEED is the official crowdfunding platform for the University of Virginia, and Pozible, a crowdfunding platform based in Melbourne, Australia, dedicated a section of its site to Deakin University for several projects under the umbrella, "Research My World."

What's ahead – and what are the hurdles?

Crowdfunding for scientific research will undoubtedly continue to grow, though it will have to overcome some hurdles. Credibility is one issue. "Anybody can use the Internet to push out their own agenda, whether it has integrity or not," Dr. Garbarino explained. "If someone packages their project in a creative way, offers interesting rewards and then tries to sell it to a community that might not be able to discern whether it's real or quackery, there's a real problem."

Although the larger crowdfunding platforms have rigorous application processes that help separate bona fide research from "junk," not all do. One solution is to increase the number of university-vetted projects that are put forth going forward, she suggested.

Another challenge: "When you write and receive grants, your university normally takes off a percentage to help cover its operating costs. We don't yet know how this works with crowdfunding; it's an evolving mechanism," Dr. Garbarino acknowledged. Intellectual property rights for crowdfunded projects are also a concern. "Once you throw something up, people can copy it instantly. So we have to work out how to protect IP."

In 2012, $2.7 billion was raised through crowdfunding sites; that number is projected to reach $5.1 billion in 2013, Dr. Garbarino noted. "There's no doubt that crowdfunding is shaping a new economy, and there's no reason why scientists and researchers in general shouldn't just hop on that bandwagon. Just go for it."[divider]

View the presentation


Lessons learned: young scientists talk about their crowdfunding projects

Dr. Jeanne Garbarino (left) leads a Q&A session with three scientists working on crowdfunding projects: Sarah Weisberg, Heather Kopsco and Bharathi Sundaresh. (Photo by Marilynn Larkin)After Dr. Garbarino gave her presentation, she led a Q&A session with three young scientists working on crowdfunding projects. These participants described their projects and highlighted some of the crowdfunding challenges they've faced.

Sarah Weisberg, a staff scientist at BioBus, joined that organization after completing an undergraduate degree at Harvard and a master's degree in cell biology at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. She and a team of scientists drive the bus — a converted 1974 transit bus with a research-grade microscopy lab inside — to schools, museums and community centers in New York City and across the country. Last year, the BioBus was funded in part through a crowdsourcing campaign on Fundly.

Weisberg noted that, for the most part, people who donated to the BioBus campaign were already in the team's networks. Therefore, having strong networks to start with is critical to crowdfunding success. The BioBus team also learned from trial and error how best to present their campaign.

"We thought that creating separate pages for schools that wanted the BioBus to visit would lead people with a connection to the school or neighborhood to donate toward that visit — but that didn't happen," she said. "It turned out that people were interested in supporting the BioBus in general because they liked the idea, so they donated to our global campaign but not to the specific campaigns we spent time developing. That was a major lesson."[divider]

Heather Kopsco (Photo by Scott Pasichow)Heather Kopsco (@BirdsandLyme), a master of science candidate and graduate assistant in the Biology and Molecular Biology Department of Montclair State University in New Jersey, used Microryza to fund her campaign to understand the role birds play in the dissemination of Borrelia burgdorferi, the causative agent of Lyme disease (Editor's note: the panel was held a day before the all-or-nothing campaign ended — and Kopsco did meet her goal).

Kopsco's biggest challenge was "making the project relevant to the audience," she said.

Family and friends will always be there to provide support, but that goes only so far. I had to figure out the best social network to use and how to craft the language — a big challenge, especially for us scientists. I also had to become business-minded and marketing-minded, rather than just focusing on all the minutiae involved in the project. It took almost the whole campaign before I was finally able to sum up my project in two sentences.[divider]

Bharathi Sundaresh is in her third year at Cornell University, working towards a bachelor's degree in biological sciences and a minor in business. She also is working with Dr. Christopher Mason at Weill Cornell Medical College to establish PathoMap, a study of the microbiome of the five boroughs of Manhattan to identify microorganisms present on the subway and other public services.

The lab is using Indiegogo to raise $10,000 to cover costs associated with sequencing the microbiome. (Watch Indiegogo's presentation for the Mendeley Masterclass at Social Media Week London.) "Outreach was also a major concern for our project," she said. The team used Twitter and blogging to generate interest, but the most effective method turned out to be emailing people on the Mason lab list, as well as Dr. Mason's friends and colleagues.

In the end, the panelists agreed with Dr. Garbarino's initial statements that crowdfunding is an effective way to bring in money, and that it takes a lot of work to launch and maintain an effective campaign. But they also noted that running a campaign is rewarding in that it provides opportunities to communicate to and educate people who might not otherwise express interest in science.


[caption id="attachment_25683" align="alignleft" width="180"]Marilynn Larkin Marilynn Larkin[/caption]

The Author

Marilynn Larkin is an award-winning science writer and editor who develops content for medical, scientific and consumer audiences. She was a contributing editor to The Lancet and its affiliated medical journals for more than 10 years and a regular contributor to the New York Academy of Sciences' publications and Reuters Health's professional newsfeed. She also launched and served as editor for of Caring for the Ages, an official publication of theAmerican Medical Directors Association. Larkin's articles also have appeared in Consumer Reports,Vogue ,Woman's Day and many other consumer publications, and she is the author of five consumer health books.

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1 Archived Comment

Marilynn Larkin February 10, 2014 at 1:16 pm

Looks like more good news for scientists seeking crowdfunding. According to this report, Microryza has a new name,, and is expanding its platform to reach a wider scientific community:


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