Dollars for Doctors: A Guide to Crowdfunding Academic Research

Perpetual conversations mourning the ever-tightening budgets of academic institutions sometimes seem like an apocalyptic harbinger for research. Studies and inquires meant to further human knowledge may not be on hold, but competition for grants, fellowships, awards, and other financial support escalates as resources grow scarcer. But a uniquely 21st century innovation might very well rescue the financially floundering scholar — crowdfunding.

Its premise is simple. Pitch a product. Offer some incentives at different levels. Then see which friends, family members, fellow professionals, and strangers donate money to support the project. This strategy famously helps struggling artists release their dream art projects, and crowdfunded projects raked in an estimated $2.7 billion last year.

“Crowdfunding is gaining in popularity among researchers,” says Daniel D. Gutierrez, the CEO and co-founder of the California based, science-oriented crowdfunding platform FundaGeek. “The only issue is that their institutions do not understand crowdfunding and are putting up roadblocks. For example, university development departments don't have a financial mechanism in place to accept money from a large number of small pledge donors, so there is resistance.”

He added that, though some schools are slow to adopt the format, the researchers and academics are eager to give it a try. “We've seen a lot of success in crowdfunding by undergrad researchers who accept the money outside of the university,” he says.

The State of Crowdfunding Today

All evidence points toward crowdfunding continuing to enjoy growth within the academic community. The sciences especially thrive, with some of the most successful projects offering compelling products and projects in biology, technology, and other disciplines.

“Scientists gravitate to crowdfunding because it provides the means to fill holes in the traditional grant process that's become hypercompetitive and time-consuming,” Gutierrez explains. “With crowdfunding, you don't have to write lengthy grant applications.”

He continues: “The money coming from a crowdfunding campaign can be very important in making sure important research projects keep moving forward. There is no reason why crowdfunding can't become an integral part of the scientific community.”

In a guest blog for Scientific American, Dr. Jai Ranganathan of the #SciFund Challenge celebrates crowdfunded academic research as a solution to waning funding from the National Science Foundation, National Institute of Health, and other organizations. But its perks benefit more than just the scientists behind the projects. Opening up research engages a populace whose scientific literacy is dropping . It engages the very people who benefit from research most, allowing them to actively take part in the process by donating and following along with the progress.

The #SciFund Challenge helps ensure all participating parties, both crowdfunders and crowdfunding recipients, gain from the projects involved. So far it seems to be doing an excellent job of nurturing an appreciation of the option, if the number of projects they showcase is any indication. The challenge, should scientists choose to accept it, is to build relationships with people who benefit from their work — us.

As Ranganathan's group points out, fewer than 20% of scientific proposals receive funding from traditional outlets. But a jokey Kickstarter campaign for a statue of Robocop surpassed its goal by 35%, and a project designed to make a movie from cult TV show Veronica Mars raised $5.7 million, almost three times its original goal. If academics could harness the same public enthusiasm for their work, they could easily address the issue of where to find the money. Recently, #SciFund Challenge began offering training courses for any scholars curious about crowdfunding.

Gutierrez also sees a positive trend incoming: “I believe the interest in academic research for crowdfunding is increasing. This year I've seen a lot written about the subject, and this is striking considerable curiosity in many scientific areas.” He cites the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which has expressed a desire to use crowdfunding as an alternative means to sponsoring academics.

“I expect 2013 to become a breakout year for crowdfunding research,” he says.

Sampling Some Successful Campaigns

Both the Clouded Leopard Expedition and Orangutan Field Research were held up as examples of FundaGeek projects Gutierrez found particularly notable. While neither hit their exact goals, they did receive a generous outpouring of support . Thirty-five backers donated $1,823 to Meg Harris with the Clouded Leopard Expedition, and 29 contributed $1,311.

Because FundaGeek allows crowdfunding academics to keep the money they receive even if they fall short of their target, any project earning donations is considered successful. Any positive support received should be accepted with grace and gratitude. And, of course, a prompt delivery of any incentives.

Gutierrez also noted the currently ongoing Possum Vision as another great initiative. Run by 8th-grader Josie Baudendistel (along with her Ph.D. papa and mentor at University of Dayton), the FundaGeek campaign pays for this year's high tech science fair project. As of this writing, she has already received $1,155 out of her $1,390 goal. Possum Vision proves that academics are not the only researchers who benefit from pursuing this option. Students unable to access funding through the traditional channels might be able to rally friends, family, and even industry professionals to pay a small price for big research returns.

NPR recently featured two innovative, high-profile Indiegogo campaigns dedicated to analyzing microbes of the human body: American Gut and uBiome. American Gut raised $338,736 out of a desired $400,000, while uBiome set its initial fundraising goal at $100,000 and wound up rewarded with $351,193.

Both projects involved similar scientific aims and offered detailed, compelling presentations with pictures, charts, media links, and explanations of the research process. They provided appropriate rewards at different levels, with some participants earning the honor of testing their own body's microbial structure. But uBiome likely earned more than American Gut for one major reason: its minimum donation was set at $5. Nobody could donate less than $99 to American Gut. Providing more opportunities for crowdfunders of all economic backgrounds democratized uBiome's structure and accepted a wider range of interested participants.

Both uBiome and American Gut can be considered successful campaigns, obviously. They earned hundreds of thousands of dollars for their research — a laudable accomplishment regardless of their original stated goals. But crowdfunding academics might want to stick with uBiome's more accessible payment options if they hope to increase their chances of hitting certain milestones.

Crowdfunders also gravitate toward projects with tangible results, especially if they actually receive the product after launch. Nanolight, trumpeted as “the world's most energy efficient light bulb,” offered an actual bulb as one of its incentives. It ended up attracting 5,746 supporters donating $273,278, when its original goal sat at $200,000. More than 2,500 contributors chipped in $52,089 toward DrinkSavvy, a startup company collaborating with a Worcester Polytechnic Institute professor to produce straws and cups capable of detecting drugs used in date rapes. Donors at specific levels will receive the results once they establish the finalized formula.

DrinkSavvy and Nanolight not only catered to sponsors' desire for physical products, they also succeeded because of their appeal beyond the scientific community. Everyone benefits from rape and sexual assault prevention. Everyone benefits from eco-friendly technology. Because of this, both campaigns attracted supporters across multiple demographics. DrinkSavvy received donations from rape prevention groups and domestic violence shelters, while Nanolight enthused environmentalists. Engaging communities outside the industry involved reflects #SciFund Challenge's goals of promoting learning while simultaneously furthering academic inquiry.

Crowdfunding through the right platform also determines success and satisfaction. Each one reaches out to a different audience and provides different services, which do influence how much money researchers receive.

Where to Go

Some of the most high-profile research projects chose general crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter (Nanolight) and Indiegogo (uBiome, DrinkSavvy) to draw support. RocketHub is another option appealing to broad audiences, including academics. Brazil's 2012 iGEM team used it to raise the funding necessary to compete, earning $2,995 and surpassing their initial goal of $2,750.

Taking advantage of these platforms opens up projects to much wider audiences than their more niche-oriented counterparts. However, options exist for academics — mostly scientists — to raise money for projects alongside one another.

Gutierrez says, “FundaGeek is not an ‘all or nothing' platform, and that is a big reason why researchers like our platform.” His company merges social media with crowdfunding for a full, satisfying user experience. Participating scientists appreciate both the community and the fact that they can keep the money, regardless of whether or not they meet their goals.

University of South Florida's SciFlies marks a unique and groundbreaking relationship between crowdfunded research and the academic institutions that typically view them with hostility. The school recognizes crowdfunding as a viable strategy for supporting research, making it one of the few holding such a positive outlook. Unlike most of the other platforms out there, SciFlies also stands out because it only allows donors to contribute $10 or $20.

Microryza, Petridish, and iAMscientist all focus on crowdfunding options for specifically scientists as well.

Although the sciences dominate crowdfunded research, other disciplines have started cautiously exploring it as well. The Technology Commercialization Office at University of Utah announced a landmark partnership with RocketHub in February 2013. Known as the University Tech Vault, it encourages entrepreneurship among the school's faculty, alumni, and student researchers. The program gives researchers the money necessary to develop their products as well as the support to commercialize them. Dr. Jim Martin's Active Desk project, for example, has surpassed its goals thanks to this initiative.

Picking the Best Platform

Because crowdfunding revolves around money, it makes sense that money is the first thing any academic considering the option should research when choosing a platform, like how much of a cut the sites take(if any) and whether they charge to join and/or post a project.

Most importantly, researchers need to check whether they're allowed to keep the money that's donated if the original goal is not met by the deadline. Kickstarter and Indiegogo, the two most popular crowdfunding platforms, prove that both approaches have their supporters. Kickstarter only pays out to participants if they raise the minimum amount in the allotted time. Miss it, miss out on all the money. Donors are not charged. Indiegogo, however, lets users choose between two options: a fixed-funding plan that only pays out if they hit their goal, and a flexible-funding one that pays out no matter how much they raise (but which takes a bigger percentage of their earnings as a processing fee).

“Researchers should not choose an ‘all or nothing' crowdfunding platform that only provides funding if the project meets its goal amount,” advises Gutierrez, whose FundaGeek allows users to keep whatever they earn no matter what. “In research, the goal amount is not that important, so if the campaign achieves 80% of the funding goals, the researcher should have the option to keep the funding. Many crowdfunding platforms will not allow funding even if you reach 99% of the goal amount.”

Always make sure to look over some of the academic research campaigns on every platform. This should provide some insight into roughly how much funding one can expect from a given community and which types of projects thrive or flounder. Proposals asking for hundreds of thousands of dollars might not work on a site where the most successful ones post five-figure goals. Know the target audience and the community before committing. More interdisciplinary projects might perform better on broader platforms, while niche research might appeal more to niche donors.

If crowdfunding is meant to supplement a grant or other source, check to see if a conflict of interest might result. Some institutions might not want to see backers supporting the project in tandem; they prefer exclusive financial control over the project.

Crowdfunding works best for research development and implementation, and not so much ongoing support. For example, academics will have more success with a campaign for a specific chemistry project rather than one aiming to regularly maintain a chemistry lab. Painstakingly analyze needs before attempting to meet them; not all research is created equal, unfortunately, and not all proposals will necessarily benefit much from a crowdfunded approach.

Things to Remember

  • Offer good incentives and options: Always provide options staggered in such a way that small, medium, and large contributions are both allowed and properly compensated. Allowing for a wide range of funding options opens up more opportunities for donors; viewers will not look at your project and close the browser window disappointed that they couldn't afford to help out. Nobody expects the $5 levels to receive the exact same rewards as their $10, $100, or $1000 counterparts. But make sure to offer appropriate rewards so they feel adequately thanked. Try picking ones that parallel the cost of what they're giving.
  • Clear methodology: In accessible language, explain to readers how you plan to conduct your research and make yourself available to answer any further questions. Sponsors appreciate concrete details; being vague or obscure won't help you. If readers think your methodology might be suspicious, they will show support for other proposals.
  • Remember pictures and videos: Including videos and images illustrating preliminary research or expected results greatly increases a project's chances of getting funded. You may be offering an industry-changing proposal, but few will risk paying for it if you don't illustrate exactly how everything will fit together.
  • Budget: Crowdfunders want to see what all their money will purchase, so only showing them the final product won't capture their interest. Break down everything you hope to buy, along with the estimated cost. And include some “stretch goals,” adding a little extra just in case you go over your original goal.
  • Regular, transparent contact: During and after the campaign, always make yourself as available as possible to your crowdfunders, preferably through email. Address any of their concerns. Answer their questions. Show some love by collectively celebrating certain milestones, like $100 or $500 or $1,000, through emails to donors. If you manage to hit any delays or other hardships, be sure to contact them and keep them abreast of everything happening. Be apologetic and be polite. They'll appreciate the honesty.
  • Honor deadlines: For example, if you offer T-shirts as a $25 incentive, send them out once you get them from the screenprinters. Shipping estimates may not always line up with actual delivery dates, but you owe it to your supporters to alert them when the deadlines wind up pushed back.
  • Find tangible rewards: You may grumble, but the fact is, crowdfunders prefer projects with results they find tangible and engaging. The Nanolights and DrinkSavvy straws attract more backers than sociological studies concluding as a journal article, or a research expedition in which they cannot actively participate. This may have something to do with project managers offering the final results as an incentive — a practice wholly recommended whenever feasible. People feel more connected to results they sponsored and can hold.
  • Promote responsibly: Don't ever use spam or sockpuppet techniques to solicit funding. Share the project through appropriate channels, like social media and the relevant sections of academic forums. If your product has crossover appeal, such as the DrinkSavvy straws' merging of chemistry and social justice, you might want to pursue those avenues as well. Just stay polite and transparent as you would in anything else.
  • Fund unto others: One way to build up a relationship with other crowdfunding academics is contributing to their campaigns. It fosters goodwill within the community, furthers the cause, and increases their chances of donating to your projects in the future.
  • Always be gracious: Even $1 toward your campaign is $1 donated in faith and support. You might not always meet your goals, but you should always expend the effort to express genuine gratitude to every single contributor. Displaying a disappointed, accusatory, or defeatist attitude might actively sabotage future crowdfunding projects. A gracious researcher also takes care and time to answer any sponsor's questions politely, clearly, and quickly.

With the exception of some pioneering early adapters like University of Utah and University of South Florida, most educational institutions approach crowdfunding with skepticism at best and hostility at worst. But educators themselves enthusiastically embrace the concept. Large sums of money necessary to support their research projects are not nearly as readily available as before, and crowdfunding lets them democratize progress. Most importantly, an engaged populace is an educated populace. Allowing people to take part in the research process through funding, incentives, and watching the results trickle keeps them invested in the experience and helps your research find a broader audience.