Biomedical research is expensive, and existing sources of funding often fall short. Profitable business models for the development of cell-based therapies are still being worked out, so investment in regenerative medicine start-ups can be difficult to secure. Foundations and governments provide support for basic research, but the growing number of applications, NIH budget cuts, and the increasing focus by the Canadian government on proposals’ commercialization potential have made this type of grant funding an increasingly scarce commodity.
In this challenging landscape, individual researchers may find that crowdfunding is a viable alternative to existing sources of support for regenerative medicine research. Web-based crowdfunding is a relatively new phenomenon, but it is growing rapidly, with crowdfunding portals projected to raise an estimated $5.1 billion worldwide in 2013. Science crowdfunding involves the direct financing of a scientific research project through a large number of individual donations, and several different crowdfunding models have already proven successful.
The Stand-Alone Project Model
In this model, researchers and their supporters use a crowdfunding campaign hosted on one of the general portals (like Kickstarter or Indiegogo) as part of a broader effort to raise money for a specific research project.
As part of the iCancer campaign, for example, a team of Uppsala University researchers and activists raised $162,000 on Indiegogo to test an oncolytic virus therapy for neuroendocrine cancer, as well as $190,000 in direct donations to the university. This crowdfunded down-payment helped to attract a large donation from a wealthy donor, and iCancer ultimately succeeded in raising the 2 million GBP necessary to fund the clinical trial.
Another example of a similar campaign is still underway. Dr. Maria Gjerpe, a chronic fatigue syndrome patient, is aiming to raise $1.2 million for a Phase 3 trial of the immunosuppressive drug Rituximab as a treatment for ME/CFS at Norway’s Haukeland Hopsital. The MEandYou campaign raised $85,000 in its first 9 days.
Clearly, it is possible to fund individual clinical trials through campaigns that make heavy use of crowdfunding, and the Stand-Alone Project Model holds great promise in supporting the clinical translation of therapeutic approaches with unclear business models. Basic research, however, is unlikely to receive the same level of media attention or interest from the users of general crowdfunding portals, since it cannot offer the same prospect of a short-term treatment and must compete with the wide range of projects available on these portals. While there have been some successes in funding fundamental research in the biomedical domain, the other two science crowdfunding models may be a better bet for basic scientists.
The Specialty Portal Model
Specialty portals focus on funding a specific class of project. Microryza, for example, is a portal dedicated to funding scientific research projects. While the amounts raised per campaign have been relatively small to date, the portal and its user base is growing rapidly. Another example is the Rare Genomics Institute, which takes a patient-focused approach to crowdfunding. It hosts campaigns that raise money to sequence the genome of specific patients with rare or un-diagnosable diseases. Once the patient’s genome is sequenced, affiliated researchers can use this data to try to develop a treatment.
A major advantage in using specialty portals is that their users are pre-selected to be responsive to health researchers’ pleas for support, since they have already demonstrated an interest in science. The downside, of course, is that they are currently relatively small-scale operations, so it can be more difficult to gain broad exposure to potential donors.
A common weakness of both models, moreover, is that potential donors may find it difficult to gauge the quality of a scientific project. Since project quality is a key predictor of crowdfunding success, this may limit researchers’ ability to raise sufficient funds for larger projects. While donors might use attributes like the institutional affiliation or publication record of project PIs as proxies for project quality, this takes extra effort, and non-scientists may not know how to make use of this information. The final science crowdfunding model provides one way to address this problem.
The Institutional Portal Model
Cancer Research UK has been successfully crowdfunding individual research projects on its own portal for several years. The charity offers donors the ability to contribute additional funds to specific projects that already receive support from the organization and which have, therefore, already been vetted by Cancer Research UK’s review process. This means that donors can be relatively confident that their money will be well spent, and several of the projects have raised over 100,000 pounds. This model is probably not well suited to supporting early-stage or speculative research, but, due to the built-in project quality indicators, may be able to consistently raise larger amounts than the other models. Federal funding bodies like CIHR, for example, could use crowdfunding to raise money for “fundable” proposals that don’t make the cut-off for approval.
Raising the amounts of money necessary to develop regenerative medicine therapies through crowdfunding is likely to be difficult, and will involve a combination of these three models as well as others that have yet to emerge. The potential donor pool for the crowdfunding of biomedical research, however, is large. According to a Statistics Canada survey, Canadians donated at least $2 billion to education and research organizations, universities and colleges, and health organizations in 2010. The potential in the United States is even greater, with Americans having donated $89.5 billion in 2011 to foundations, educational organizations, and health organizations.
So why have regenerative medicine researchers and organizations largely avoided experimenting with crowdfunding to date, despite the approach’s huge potential? Given the relative novelty of the phenomenon, this may simply reflect a lack of awareness about research crowdfunding. If so, this post may begin to remedy that deficit. Other barriers, however, might also stand in the way of adoption. Researchers may feel that the potential payoff is simply not worth the time needed to prepare a project pitch for a lay audience, and may feel uneasy about engaging in an unorthodox and very public fundraising effort, particularly if their home institution has not actively endorsed the practice.
Ultimately, regenerative medicine researchers’ ability to use crowdfunding to further their work depends on it becoming an accepted practice in the broader scientific community, which is why I’m interested in what you, as readers of this blog, think about science crowdfunding. I’ve set up a poll with some basic questions, and invite you to participate. You can also leave your comments below or email them to me directly at nick(at)nickdragojlovic.com.
Editor’s note May 14, 2014: This poll is no longer available due to a software upgrade incompatibility.
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