Luan and Wu both recognized the need for a new funding model for scientific research. Fortunately, Luan has a background not only in science, but in microfinance as well. He also knew that historically, for hundreds of years, many scientists were funded not by the state but by individual patrons or by subscription.
The answer to small-scale innovative scientific research funding, he felt, could be to leverage the worldwide power of the internet to create a microfinance funding source involving individual subscribers. The vision was clear, but how to get there?
Luan and Wu knew they needed to create a crowdfunding website, and having virtually no funds, that meant designing and constructing it themselves. The design they chose is one in which researchers can post information about a project needing funding.
It’s an all-or-nothing system: Projects that fail to reach their goals, usually within 30 to 60 days, are not funded, and the money returned to the donors. This gives the researchers a maximum incentive to focus on promoting their project. Once a project reaches its goal, supporters are rewarded with insights and behind-the-scenes information on how the project is going.
Building and designing the website turned out to be only a small part of Luan’s and Wu’s efforts. “Build it and they will come” only works if people know about the site and its offerings.
Marketing is the key to the success of both Microryza and its individual projects. Luan and Wu learned to become marketers, and they also make sure that the individual researchers who work with Microryza are also taught marketing techniques.
“Running a crowdfunding campaign requires commitment,” explains Luan. “A successful campaign requires passion, resourcefulness, and some good old-fashioned hustle.”
To see how Microryza marketing works, take the example of one of their funding projects: research into compounds that may retard or prevent a variant of prion disease. The researchers involved, husband and wife team Sonia Vallabh and Eric Minikel, know that Vallabh carries a fatal D178N mutation, one that gives her a 100% chance of succumbing to fatal insomnia.
As Vallabh says, “Prion diseases are extremely rapid, with mortality following only months after initial symptoms. However, many carriers of genetic prion diseases, including us, have undergone predictive genetic testing and know their status decades before the onset of any symptoms. Genetic prion diseases provide an opportunity for early intervention and a potentially large therapeutic effect.”
The two researchers, who work at the Center for Human Genetic Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, wanted to raise $8,000 for mouse studies on whether what looks like a promising therapeutic compound, anle138b, can delay the onset of symptoms and extend survival in a mouse model of A117V Gerstmann-Straussler-Scheinker syndrome, a genetic prion disease. James Mastrianni, M.D., and his laboratory at the University of Chicago will be conducting the research.
Anle138b is the most promising anti-prion compound yet discovered, but to date it has only been tested in vivo against one prion strain. Vallabh and Minikel wanted to determine its efficacy against an entirely different strain of prions, in a model that closely mimics the pathology of a human prion disease.
The project has the potential for a large impact, but the couple had little chance of getting funding. After all, they were in their late 20s, the amount was small, and the project, not having been done before, was risky.
Microryza turned out to be their answer. Luan helped them create a compelling funding request on the Microryza website, but that was just the beginning. The real impact, Luan knew, would come from marketing. To be a success, large numbers of people would need to be made aware of this particular request for funding.