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Crowdfunding's Next Frontier: Academic Research?
April 12, 2012 - 8:44pm

Crowdfunding has become increasingly popular lately. That is, those who are looking for funding for their various projects can now turn to the community at large, which makes small contributions that are pooled resources into some pretty sizable chunks of change. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter have been able to boast some phenomenal success stories recently – the $3 million raised for the Double Fine Adventure video game being a case in point. Of course, not everyone who tries to raise money via Kickstarter is successful (actually less than half are.) But by bypassing traditional fundraising channels – investors or banks or grants, for example – crowdfunding sites have supported a flood of new creative projects. In many cases, these are projects that would not have ordinarily received funding.

But Kickstarter’s focus is specifically on “creative projects,” and a new site launching its beta today hopes to turn that same crowd-based financing effort to science. The site's called Microryza – a name that says a lot about the startup’s approach to funding scientific efforts. As the website explains it, “Mycorrhizae are symbiotic, microscopic fungi that live in the roots of plants, and they are found everywhere that plants grow. They break down nutrients, fight off pathogens, and stabilize the soil. Although they’re small and unnoticeable, when you have lots of them they can support an entire ecosystem of roots, shrubs, and trees. Without mychorizzae many of the plants on our planet would not survive.” That is, Microryza wants to support a community to provide “microgrants to seed new research.”

I met founder Denny Luan late last year at a Startup Weekend EDU event on the UW campus in Seattle.  He's been working on the idea for a long time, and Microryza finally launches today.  And it launches with 9 research projects that are looking for funding:  one project examines computational humor, one is trying to bring back to Seattle a Triceratops skeleton from a dig in Wyoming. Seattle features prominently here as, according to Luan, this initial batch of projects all come from researchers in and around the University of Washington community. They’re people that Luan and his team “personally know.”

Vouching for someone's research might seem like a steep challenge, although sites like Kickstarter too ask donors to believe that projects really are possible.  And just as with Kickstarter, the crowd will decide what's worthy of funding. But Microryza will have to face the challenge of attracting researchers and, depending on how much it relies on academic credentials, vetting some of their work. (Kickstarter does vet projects too, of course)  Luan says that he hopes to build out a reputation system so that it’s easy to see who’s active on the site as well as respected in their fields.

It's elements like the proposed reputation system that Luan points to when he insists this isn't just another Kickstarter clone. There’s a strong social component to the startup that Luan is building with Microryza – it’s not just a place for funding, but a place for networking and sharing research. In fact, Luan describes Microryza as a “social learning” site, and he’s clear that while the goal is certainly to have scientific research projects funded, the emphasis isn’t just on the outcomes of that research. It’s on the process itself.

Microryza will claim no ownership over the IP that's generated in the course of the research. And the money is currently flagged as a “gift,” although there are plans to be able to channel funds through researchers’ universities so they can be tax deductible (and so that universities can take their cut of grant monies, of course).

That piece of the typical funding process -- the universities' "overhead" -- is just one of the interesting questions that's raised by crowdfunding scientific research versus the traditional funding channels. There are questions about "the funding" aspect, but also ones about "the crowd."  If the public-at-large takes a role here, will a different sort of research be funded? How do you translate science for the general public so that it can make good funding decisions? (Do these concerns even matter?)  Or will Microryza just be utilized by those within the academic research community itself? And again, how might this shape what's funded or not? Lots of interesting questions, but as Luan points out, "It's early."

Unlike other crowdfunding sites, Microryza isn’t offering rewards and incentives for those who fund projects. That’s because “what matters is the process, not the results,” says Luan. After all, research projects don’t always go as expected. You don’t always get the results you wanted. “You can’t really offer things like ‘I will name a newly discovered butterfly species after you’” to get people to donate, says Luan.

The return for those who donate, however, will be insights into the scientific process as recipients update their project profiles regularly. The Microryza site is meant to encourage communication on the part of researchers with their donors, and the donors in turn will be able to offer feedback along the way.

Microryza isn’t the only startup applying crowdfunding to research. Others include Petridish. But Luan hopes the emphasis on the learning process rather than just the end-product will help distinguish Microryza from the competition.

 

 

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