Kickstarting Your Career: Crowdfunding for Scientific Research

Christopher Columbus spent 7 years convincing private investors and heads of state to fund his idea of finding a faster trade route to the East Indies.  As research scientists, we’re not much different than Columbus.  Instead of requesting court with Kings and Queens, we propose ideas to government agencies that allocate funding to academic researchers.  But, as governments around the world are looking for ways to reduce spending, grant funding is becoming more and more difficult to obtain.  This leaves young investigators floating in a never ending sea of postdoctoral positions.   Even well funded researchers are looking for alternative sources of financial support in order to fill the downtime between the 12-18 month R01 grant cycles. 

Popularized by such sites as Kickstarter, crowdfunding has become a main source of financial support for entrepreneurs with ideas ranging from clothing lines to social media.  Unfortunately, Kickstarter prohibits projects for health and medicine, making the site useless for academic researchers.  To fill this gap, Petridish, iAMscientist and MedStartr have come online in the past 6 months.  These sites are devoted to helping academic or not for profit tenured, postdoctoral and graduate scientists obtain funding for their research ideas.  Simply propose a research idea, upload video and photos describing your proposal, set a minimum funding requirement and use your social media network to alert your colleagues. 

It’s too early to determine how beneficial crowdfunding is for scientific research, nevertheless, using these sites has several pros and cons that research scientists (especially young investigators) need to consider.

Pros

High Benefit to Time Ratio

Crowdfunding sites state a good proposal can be created in 1-2 hours and successfully funded projects receive their financial support in 90 days.  Compare this with the numerous sleepless nights preparing an R01 grant that will take approximately 18 months before funding is received.  Even if your online proposal doesn’t meet its minimum funding requirements, the amount of time spent is miniscule compared to submitting grants to the NIH or NSF.

Building Your Network

Building a network of colleagues and peers is essential to career development.  At the very least, crowdfunding can provide an additional forum to discuss your research ideas.  This allows like-minded individuals to connect and collaborate on projects, which may lead to employment opportunities down the road.

Corporate Sponsorship

Many research scientists are turning into entrepreneurs to develop their ideas beyond the lab bench.   Crowdfunding provides unique opportunites for corporations to back potential ideas.  This can lead to corporate partnership that provide resources for product scale-up and distribution.  In other words, helping you take your product from development to market in considerably less time at reduced costs.

Cons:

Minimal Funding

To date, most of the successfully funded projects on MedStartr, Petridish and iAMscientist have received fewer than $10,000 USD.  A small drop in the bucket compared to a R01 grant.  Don’t expect crowdfunding to provide you with enough money to land a tenure-track positon.  You’re still going to need to rely on government support to run your own lab.  But, crowdfunding might be just what you need to take your research in a new direction.

Fraud

You take a big risk proposing ideas on social media sites.  Since the majority of projects don’t reach their funding goals, it’s easy for well funded researchers or corporations to run with your idea and claim it as their own.  If applicable, you may want to consider obtaining copyright or trademark licenses prior to posting to crowdfunding sites.

Since crowdfunding in academic research is an extremely new concept, some potential conflicts also exist that need to be considered.

Overhead Fees

Do laboratory overhead fees apply to crowdfunded sources?  I don’t know the answer this, but I have a feeling if crowdfunding becomes commonplace in research science, academic institutions are going to want their cut — potentially 50%.  While graduate students and postdoctoral researchers don’t have to worry about overhead fees, this could quickly change if scientific crowdfunding increased in popularity.

Property Rights

As a young investigator, all the equipment you use or data that you collect is “owned” by the principal investigator.   What happens when a young investigator uses crowdfunded sources to buy laboratory equipment to support their research needs.  Who owns that piece of equipment?   What happens when you leave that laboratory to continue research elsewhere?  Does that equipment come with you?  After all, it was YOUR proposal that was funded.  But I’m willing to wager some PI’s and maybe even the academic institution would lay claim to that piece of equipment.  This is something that you should discuss before posting your crowdfunding proposal.      

Scientists are generally slow to adopt new ideas, but in this tough fiscal climate, we need to consider all avenues of public or private support.  For young researchers, crowdfunding provides a unique opportunity to support your own research ideas while learning how to manage a budget.  Although government funding will be needed, at least in the foreseeable future, to land coveted tenure-track position, successfully crowdfunded proposals can give you a leg-up on your competition.

Has anyone tried crowdfunding to support their research endeavours?  Let the other readers know your thoughts on the process.

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About Kevin Hascup

Kevin obtained his B.S. in Biochemistry from the University of Delaware in 2001.  He worked in Research & Development for Dade Behring, a clinical diagnostics company located in Newark, Delaware.  It was here that he acquired an interest in neurobiology and in the summer of 2003 he began the PhD program at the University of Kentucky.  In 2007, Kevin obtained his PhD in Anatomy and Neurobiology and continued his thesis research  with two  separate postdoctoral research positions at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden and McGill University in Montreal, Quebec.  Kevin is currently Director of Product Development for an up-and-coming biotechnology located in Springfield, Illinois and is co-founder of RateMyPI.com. 
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One Response to Kickstarting Your Career: Crowdfunding for Scientific Research

  1. Pingback: Crowdfunding and archaeological research: should we do it? | Succinct Research

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