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Jan 14, 2014

Microryza’s New Scientific Funding Model

Helping to get risky but innovative research projects off the ground.

Microryza’s New Scientific Funding Model

Microryza's staff. Top, from left to right: Stephanie Halamek, Denny Luan, Oscar Jasklowski. Bottom, from left to right: Ryan Lower, Cindy Wu, Skander Mzali.

  • “Build it and they will come.”

    That was the attitude of Denny Luan and his colleague Cindy Wu two years ago when they were starting their website, Microryza.com. The website is designed to facilitate scientific research funding, and as with its more famous prototype, Kickstarter, the funding would come from crowdsourcing. However, unlike Kickstarter, Microryza would focus exclusively on science.

    Luan and Wu are both young scientists—they’re in their 20s—but their thinking was based on the old entrepreneurial approach: to be successful, find a hole and fill it.

    The particular hole they were dealing with is that scientists are often forced to siphon off months of precious time and incalculable amounts of creative energy as they focus on writing grant proposals. Worse, for all that investment in time and energy, they may have no success to show for it.

    Fully 80% of Federal grant applications are never funded, and in biomedicine, the average age of a first-time grant recipient is 42. Too many projects never get funded because they seem risky, the proposer is young, the amount is too small to be worth the paperwork, or it’s simply an approach that’s never been tried before.

    As Luan says, “It’s increasingly difficult for new ideas to get off the ground, especially the innovative, high-risk ideas with the biggest impact.”

  • Microfinancing

    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.

  • Public Outreach Skills Essential

    According to Luan, there’s a lot researchers need to learn about public outreach if they’re to make their scientific crowd-funding a success. “People wanting to do crowd funding may not be using Twitter or Facebook, and they may not know where to go to reach out to the communities that are passionate about their issue,” he points out

    Luan instructed Vallabh and Minikel to start by answering the question, “Who would love this project?” Initially, that might mean personal messages to friends, family, and colleagues. “This is the cornerstone of every crowdfunding project,” says Luan. “These are the people who already believe in you and know about your work.”

    Another major aspect of marketing is searching the web for community groups with an interest in this particular disease. In the case of Vallabh and Minikel, they had the job of: first, finding the groups that would truly care about research that could help treat or prevent the disease; second, contacting members of the group; and then letting them know about the opportunity to fund their research.

    In addition, Luan and his colleagues guided the two researchers to other outlets for making people aware of their project including Reddit, which features AMA (Ask Me Anything) posts. He and his colleagues also recommend using traditional media.

    “It’s one of the best ways to leverage your efforts to reach a large audience,” he says. “Local newspaper, television, and radio stations may be interested in your research project. Also, writers and bloggers are always looking for great stories, and new discoveries make for pretty good reading.”

    The average Microryza donor gives $90, and knowing this statistic helps Luan guide people in their marketing campaigns. “Take your funding goal, divide it by $90, and now you know the number of people you need to tap.”

    In the case of Vallabh and Minikel, their $8,000 goal meant that they would need to find 55 donors. Fortunately, they were able to get more than three times that amount, with the pleasant result that instead of investigating one compound, they are today able to investigate three.

    Even better, if their results are promising, this will almost certainly result in additional research by others. They will have started the ball rolling for important research that was unlikely to have been funded using traditional sources.

  • Funders as Motivators

    It’s clear why Microryza attracts researchers seeking funding, but what about the other half of the equation, the people donating funds? The answer: One of the requirements for funding is the researchers must provide their donors with frequent, often informal updates on how the research is going.

    Funders get to see progress, or lack of it, on an issue that they probably care about deeply. And something else that can be highly motivating: They get to feel a part of the day-by-day process of how real science is done, including the frustrations and wrong turns and occasional triumphs. It’s a different view from what they would get reading the sanitized and simplified summaries they might find later in the popular press.

    In the two years since its inception, Microryza has raised $600,000 for more than 70 scientific research projects. It currently employs 10 people, and there are now almost 100 projects which are actively seeking funds.

    Microryza supports itself by charging a 5% fee plus a 3% card fee. “We’re doing it this way,” says Luan, “because it’s the most sustainable model. However, our goal is the same as if we were a not-for-profit. We are mission-driven. We want to fund science that moves us forward. This is about our ability to invest in our future. This is about science for the people, by the people.”



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