We recently spoke to Denny Luan, co-founder of Experiment about crowdfunding for research and the future. Curiosity has led Denny down some very different paths, involving race cars, anthrax research, and microfinance.He has degrees from the University of Washington in biochemistry and economics, where he spent time making circuits out of bacteria.
Q. When, how and why was Experiment started?
A. The idea for creating Experiment came from our own experiences in struggling for funding as young scientists. Having worked in prestigious research labs at traditionally well-funded universities, we saw first-hand the current state of science funding. To us, it just didn't make sense that legitimate researchers with hugely innovative ideas struggled so much to get those ideas off the ground. At the same time, we were frustrated that there were no ways for members of the general public to directly connect with real scientific research. It just seemed like a simple coordination problem, and so we looked towards the early lessons of successful social microfinance and peer-to-peer crowdfunding platforms for ways to solve these problems.
After failing to get a grant for a project, we came up with the idea for crowdsourced funding for science. We immediately went to 100 different researchers, ranging from tenured life science professors to undergraduates in social science, and asked if they would use a crowdfunding platform. Everyone said yes, so we taught ourselves how to code and built the platform ourselves. We launched in March 2012 and after funding six of the first nine projects, we decided to quit our jobs as researchers and focus on growing Experiment.
Q. What is your business model and how many projects have been funded through Experiment.com?
A. When we started Experiment, we knew that sustainability would be a goal in order to help us grow and expand our social mission. Because of that, our model is very closely tied to the success of the researchers. We take a small 5% transaction fee only if a project has met its funding goal. This helps us keep our site up and running. So far, we've funded over 140 projects to date.
The video below is featured on Experiment to promote funding for the project "Does fracking contaminate water with hormone inducing chemicals?" by Susan C. Nagel, PhD, University of Missouri.
Q. What do you feel is your competitive advantage over other research crowdfunding sites?
A. When we first launched with a small batch of nine projects nearly two years ago, there were actually many other science funding platforms out there in existence. However, we felt that none of the other platforms did a particularly good job of presenting the science, and that they were all very conceptually similar to existing creative crowdfunding websites. Our focus is research based, and our goal is to help share the scientific stories that are often hidden from the public. Everyone on our team is a scientist or comes from that world, and our sole focus is to help scientists share the moment of discovery.Everyone on our team is a scientist or comes from that world, so we know what it's like. Our sole focus is to help scientists share the moment of discovery by building a platform we would want to use.
Q. Why do you feel researchers have turned to crowdfunding to fund their research projects?
A. It's an open secret in academia that science funding is broken. Part of the large acceptance of this is cultural, and also partly due to how we train young scientists today. It's expected that young investigators struggle for funding, balancing career development with real scientific progress, and it's unfortunate that today'sgeneration of scientists have conflated the two to be the same thing. Publish or perish has successfully invaded what types of science gets funded, who is likely to receive funding, and why certain topic areas get attention. This is pulling away our best and brightest minds from doing what they do best, which is asking questions and doing research. Crowdfunding is offering scientists a chance to break away from this system, and to pursue science in an uninhibited fashion. It's giving scientists an independent spirit, while also replacing ambigious grant review committees with real people - your friends, neighbors, and colleagues. We’re putting the ‘public’ back in publicly funded science, and we think it’s resonating with researchers today.
Q. Do you think crowdfunding will help to better democratize research funding?
A. Our goal is to democratize the entire scientific process - we're only starting with funding. Once scientists have their initial funding, the process of how they go on to conduct the research and how they disseminate the results is still locked up from the public. Our belief is that we only stand to benefit by opening up all of how science is done.
Q. Most of the research disciplines available are scientific, but you also have categories for Economics, Education and Psychology. Do you have plans to further expand into the social sciences and humanities?
A. We've found that many people are deeply interested in funding and engaging with relevant social science research. There are a host of issues and potential projects that many members of our community are interested in funding, yet are the kinds of proposals that would normally struggle in today's grant system. This is particularly true for interdisciplinary research, which we're seeing more success with on Experiment. In the future, we definitely have big plans to expand the number of project categories, namely because one of our goals as an organization is to help map and understand the current landscape of scientific research.
Q. Do funders receive tangible rewards in exchange for their backing?
A. The most important element of Experiment is the story behind each project. For someone who is passionate about breast cancer research or environmental ecology, being able to directly enable and participate in that project is the ultimate reward. When we first started, we made the intentional decision to stay away from tangible rewards. It makes sense for creative funding platforms, because the output of the creative process is a product. But because the output of the scientific process is knowledge, we think it's possible to present that new knowledge in a highly engaging way. This is what we're currently working on.
Q.Are projects in particular disciplines more apt to get backing? What projects are considered “sexy” to funders?
A. Initially we had the assumption that certain project areas would be more likely to receive funding than others. However, as we're quickly approaching our first $1 million in funded projects, we've actually found that this assumption isn't true. Instead, we've found that the biggest determinant behind a project's success is how engaged the researchers are in sharing their process. Because of this, we encourage all researchers to consider crowdsourced funding.We believe that all kinds of science can be sexy with the right story and angle.
Q. What’s next for Experiment?
A. It'd be nice if in the future we are able to fund a manned mission to mars, enable a cure for cancer, or build a time a machine. That's in no particular order. So that's the direction we're currently aiming at!
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