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Crowdfunding site to ‘democratise science’

Science has its own version of Kickstarter, a company called Experiment. Lindsay McKenzie reports on its plans to expand from the US into the UK, Australia and New Zealand.

“What if anyone could be a scientist?”

That was one of the driving questions behind Cindy Wu’s desire to create Experiment, science’s answer to the crowdfunding website Kickstarter.

As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, Wu had been disappointed when she came up with an idea and asked her professor where she could get funding, only to be told that the “system” only funded tenured professors.

Four years later, Experiment has more than 61,000 members and says it has successfully funded 574 experiments with a 46.9 per cent success rate.

In accordance with its stated goal to “democratise science”, Experiment is not just open to academics. “The best research ideas can come from anyone, anywhere,” Wu reckons, although all projects are reviewed and have to be scientifically approved by the Experiment team. The criteria for approval are available on the Experiment website and are different for academic and independent scientists.

The funding, like on Kickstarter, is all-or-nothing. If you don’t reach your target, you don’t get the cash. But unlike Kickstarter, fundraisers aren’t expected to give anything back to their funders, other than to update them on the scientific process.

The catch for many, however, may come in the form of the company’s business model. Experiment is a for-profit company and takes an 8 per cent cut of all money raised from successful campaigns.

Branching out

Primarily aimed at researchers in the United States, the website is now piloting projects with researchers in the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. To be considered, researchers must fill in a short questionnaire and have “the right fit,” says Wu. “Generally that means that the projects have small budgets and a well-defined scope.”

All campaigns raise funds in US dollars and payouts are in US dollars, but Wu says that if the site starts to see an “influx of researchers from the UK” asking to launch campaigns, then she will allow payments to be made in sterling.

But for the UK to take pole position, it needs to see off some tough competition. “Right now, Australia is winning,” says Wu. “Outside the US, they have the greatest number of researchers submitting questionnaires and launching successful campaigns.”

Whatever happens, Wu is confident that the UK’s day will come. “We respond to what the community wants. It is inevitable that we will open up to the UK, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Right now it is just a matter of timing.”

Start small

James Law is a clinical assistant professor in child health at the University of Nottingham. He says he found Experiment when he was looking for ways to find extra funding for his research through crowdsourcing. “I contacted Experiment and told them what the project was about and they liked it so we went from there,” he says. “It was very straightforward.”

Law’s project involves growing specialised brown fat cells in a lab. These cells can regulate blood sugar levels and could potentially help treat children with diabetes, he says. The project reached its $5,000 (£4,090) target at the end of last year. “We initially had a much larger target, I think three times that,” says Law, “but their suggestion is that you start small.”

Wu agrees that starting small is a good idea, because if you don’t reach your target you get nothing, and you can keep anything you raise over the target amount. “The average amount a researcher raises is $4,000 on our platform,” she says. “Sometimes people see a single campaign that has raised $2.6 million and think that is the norm on the site. Experiment’s bread and butter is small, well-defined projects.”

“It’s a pump-priming amount really,” says Law. “The great thing is that now I can go to a major grant funder and say not just that it’s a useful area of research, but say look here’s a group of people who are engaged and have already put up cold hard cash.”

However, looking back, Law says that he wishes he had done a bit more preparation, such as speaking to his university press office, before launching his campaign.

“There’s a time limit for raising your target, which is quite stressful,” he says. “I realised midway that there were lots of resources available to me that I could have tapped into if I’d planned things more in detail, particularly in attracting local press coverage.”

A longer version of this article was first published in Research Professional’s Funding Insight service.  

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight