Cindy Wu was an undergraduate student at the University of Washington when she hit on a new way to reengineer an enzyme treatment for anthrax bacteria using a videogame. She eagerly approached her professor, asking how she could fund an experiment.
“Cindy, the system doesn’t fund people like you, my professor said,” Wu recalls. “It only funds tenured professors.” Still, Wu’s professor funneled some funds from his grant for Wu’s research which is currently being followed up by the Army. But the experience stuck and Wu, now 24 abandoned a promising academic career to found Experiment.com, a crowdfunding science experiment platform with fellow scientist cofounders Denny Luan and Skander Mzali.
Previously Microrgyza, the company launched fully as Experiment.com this week. Founded in 2012, the fledgling Y Combinator startup recently raised $1.2 million in seed funding from Index Ventures, Andreessen Horowitz and angel investors.
While in beta Experiment funded over 80 projects in diverse topics ranging from cancer research to marine biology, raising over $600,000 from over 5,000 people individual citizens. Experiment takes a 5% fee on fully-funded projects.
Breast cancer researcher and cofounder and CEO of Silicon Valley-based Science Exchange, Inc., an online marketplace for scientific collaboration, Dr. Elizabeth Iorns used Experiment.com when she needed $10,000 to fund an experiment into a genetic mutation. Women with the BRCA gene mutation have an 80% risk of developing breast or ovarian cancer, so Iorns wanted to run an experiment exploring how this gene is passed on in mice.
“I was very familiar with the traditional route of funding,” says Iorns. “But you spend so much time writing proposals and there’s such a small chance of them getting funded. Only 15% of grants get funded,” says Iorns. “Because I was no longer in academia and an adjunct professor I thought there would be even less chance,” she says, “and it takes them a year to give you the money.”
“I think the traditional model of scientists writing grants which are funded by taxpayers but that end up in journals behind a paywall is a really bad model for engaging the public,” she says, adding that since crowdfunding her experiment she’s had responses from people all over the world who have the BRAC gene.
Funders get access to discussions around how the experiment is going, called Lab Notes. “It’s publishing science in realtime,” says Wu.
“There’s a great level of engagement with the public and transparency,” agrees Iorns.
Worries that Experiment is trying to replace peer reviewed science seem outlandish. Most projects are looking for small amounts of money for experiments they can point to as successful when going after a big grant from the National Science Foundation or National Institute of Health.
“We’ve had people submit projects that are not research, so we don’t accept projects that are not answering a research question. Also, occasionally researchers do not want to reveal their identity,” says Wu. “The community is built on transparency and trust, so all researchers must reveal their identity. We also get the expected projects like searching for big foot or ghosts. We don’t accept those projects.”
“The NIH is inherently conservative,” says Joshua Graff Zivin, a professor of economics at UC San Diego, who has published papers on peer review reform. “If you have an idea that s a bit out there it’s hard to get funded, sometimes for good reason, sometimes not.”
It’s these bolder projects that Experiment is eyeing. “It is difficult for people to understand that $2,500 – $25,000 can make a difference in science, but we’ve proven with 85 different projects that it can.
“It is difficult to think that Experiment.com will be bring in more money than the $30B NIH budget. My response is just watch us,” says Wu.
Source: Forbes Business