Once the domain of musicians, filmmakers, and tech innovators, crowdfunding is beginning to capture the attention of scientific researchers like Andor Kiss, adjunct assistant professor and supervisor in Miami University’s Center for Bioinformatics & Functional Genomics (CBFG).
When Kiss needed a relatively small amount of money – $3,000 – to purchase some genome sequencing technology, he knew he’d have to think outside the box of federal funding because most of those agencies are limited in their ability to fund a project with such a small budget.
The genome Kiss wants to sequence is that of the North American wood frog (Rana sylvatica). He and other Miami researchers are interested in this organism because of its ability to freeze in winter, and then resume normal function after thawing in the spring.
“Very few vertebrates have the capacity to freeze and survive,” Kiss says.
Past media coverage of Miami researchers’ work on the wood frog (including this post and this episode of PBS’s science program, NOVA), reflected public fascination with the amphibian’s seeming superpower, and that’s what Kiss banked on for funding his genome-sequencing project
“I thought, ‘Well, because of the inherently attractive nature of this particular organism in capturing the public’s imagination, maybe I could crowdfund this and get a significant chunk of people who are interested in science to do this,’” Kiss recalls.
In the end, 41 backers donated a total of $3,031 – 101% of the goal – to Kiss’s project through Experiment, a site that Bill Gates has said “helps close the gap for potential and promising, but unfunded projects.”
The victory was hard-won.
“You have to work at it,” Kiss says of this kind of crowdfunding. “You have to tweet about, it. You have to do an ‘Ask Me Anything’ on Reddit. You have to really work the Internet hard, because a lot of people are not going to find it on their own. You have to contact colleagues, go to meetings, talk to people who are interested.”
The donated funds, coupled with a discount from the manufacturer, have allowed Kiss to purchase an Illumina Tru-Seq Synthetic Long-Read DNA Kit.
With this kit, Kiss hopes to answer two questions about Rana sylvatica:
- Does this frog have the same genes every other frog has, but expresses them in a unique way?
- Are there certain genes unique to this frog?
But even if he doesn’t get the answers he’s looking for, Kiss says his crowdfunders’ investment won’t be wasted.
“I would be extremely surprised if we didn’t find novel and unexpected things with the assembly of this wood frog genome,” he says. “But let’s just assume that’s the worst case scenario: we don’t find anything about the wood frog per se. At least we have developed a technology here at the CBFG that we can apply to other projects. Gaining this technical capability is a very good, valuable goal.”
Just the same, it’s the very uncertainty of a project that can make it an ideal candidate for crowdfunding. For some investors, the prospect of funding a project that could one day lead to a major discovery or innovation is thrilling, and since the stakes are usually small – the average donation to Kiss’s project was about $74 – not much is lost if the project hits a dead end.
That’s good news for scientists like Kiss, who can find it difficult to get projects that are risky or exploratory through the peer review process at government funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Miami University’s Associate Provost for Research & Scholarship, Jim Oris, anticipates crowdfunding will play an increasingly important role for scientists, innovators, and creators at universities.
“Social media has broken down and worked around hierarchies in many industries, removing gatekeepers and letting many more voices through,” Oris says. “Crowdfunding has the potential to do the same for research and creative activity at universities.”
To facilitate grassroots investment at Miami, Oris is leading the development of a homegrown crowdfunding platform. The yet-to-be-named system will allow Miami students, faculty, and staff to register projects and set a funding goal.
“We’re still very much in the beginning stages of developing the system, and there are many details to be worked out,” Oris says. “But the goal is to engage Miami alumni, family, and friends from around the world by offering them an opportunity to have a meaningful and measureable impact on work happening at Miami today.”
Kiss agrees that the measurability inherent in crowdfunding campaigns – fundraising “thermometers” are a hallmark of virtually every platform – is part of their appeal.
“People like to donate to a specific target,” he says. “They like being able to point to something concrete and say, ‘I contributed to that.’ And if the goal is to raise $2,500, there’s no question that a $100 donation will make a difference.”
Today, investors in Kiss’s wood frog genome project can point to equipment in the CBFG and say, “I contributed to that.” But Kiss hopes one day they’ll be able to point to more.
“Nature has already solved a lot of the problems. We just have to figure out how nature did it. Once we’ve sequenced the genome of the wood frog, we may eventually be able to read nature’s instructions to improve organ transplants and other medical treatments.”
Written by Heather Beattey Johnston, Associate Director & Information Coordinator, Office for the Advancement of Research & Scholarship, Miami University.