by Boonsri Dickonson, Wefunder Correspondent
The average age in mission control was 26 when we put a man on the moon. Hundreds of thousands of Americans contributed to the effort and a half-billion people watched the first step. Experiment is a crowdfunding startup with a mission to bring that same sense of excitement to the science research each one of us cares about.
The meteor that struck Russia in February showed how the internet changes the way science can be experienced. At least for a moment, the world was united over a single scientific event.
Experiment co-founder Denny Luan believes this can happen much more often. "The Internet provides a nice way to connect with science. It happened with the Curiosity rover. These events are like the 60s when a man landed on the moon," Denny said "Everyday in labs and in the field, there are these big moments when discoveries are made, we want to share that sense of wonder back with anybody."
How Experiment Was Born
Experiment helps donors fund scientists that are left behind by the traditional grant funding model. They have big goals, hoping their platform can one day be used to fund a cure for cancer, alternative energy, and put a man on Mars.
When they began the startup, it
seemed the only thing holding them back was their young age and their non-Silicon Valley cred. To change that, the young scientists-turned-entrepreneur duo Denny Luan and Cindy Wu persistently stalked 500 Startups VC Dave McClure until he invested $25,000.
This determination shines through in everything they do. To get Experiment off the ground they taught themselves how to code, design, and record production quality videos. Their current team has made big improvements to the site, but the first version of Experiment was completely home grown by the founders.
Their efforts gave them validation that Experiment could transform the way science is done, and tap the power of the crowd to fund thousands of compelling projects that don’t fit within the rigid confines of the traditional grant funding model. Denny’s email signature says it all “Not stopping until we fund the cure for cancer, intergalactic photon rocket, and time machine.”
Denny and Cindy met while they were undergrads in David Baker's lab at the University of Washington in Seattle. Cindy had discovered a potential way to create an antibiotic to treat methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA). However, there was no way to get the small amount of funding she needed to run some initial tests. Luckily her professor funneled money from an existing NIH grant to fund her side project.
"I never would have been able to take the idea forward otherwise, and I was in the unique position of having a professor that could help me. Later, we interviewed 100 scientists and they all told us they had an idea that they had to put on the shelf due to lack of funds so they could definitely use our platform," Cindy said. She later turned down offers from the best Ph.D. programs in the country in order to start Experiment because she knew thats the current funding structure wouldn't allow her to do the kind of science she wanted to do.
Fixing The Way Science Is Funded
Experiment is structured a lot like Kickstarter in that it takes a 5 percent cut of what is raised and the projects only get funded if the goal is met. Experiment is its own scientific experiment, beginning as a place to fund the long tail of research, projects that don't cost that much or require a multi year commitment. The scientists give donors a front row seat to the projects as they unfold by sharing photos, text, and video updates in real-time.
Typically, researchers spend three months a year writing grants, only to have 80 percent of them rejected because they don't fit into the big projects that agencies like the NIH are set up to fund. Helping university researchers is just the start. Cindy and Denny are also building Experiment for the new world of science where innovation can happen at home as well as in the lab.
"Once you think about research and ideas outside of universities, you start to look at citizen science. To do computational biology today, all you need is a fast computer and a PCR machine," Denny said. "Getting beyond traditional research, you start to look at developing countries. It's not just a lack of funding, it's a lack of infrastructure in countries like Africa, Brazil, and India that prevent innovative ideas from getting off the ground. Helping to surface those ideas and get them funded is the long term vision of where we want to take Experiment" Denny added.
For instance, scientists in Tanzania found that they can trap mosquitos by isolating chemicals that cause stinky feet. They couldn't get funding, so they took a grant from The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.They created a device that attracted mosquitoes to it and lowered malaria rates by 4 times.
Donors Get Excited
When Cindy was a kid, she wanted to be a paleontologist. Her mom and dad would take her to museums, but she really wanted to go on digs herself to see the excavation process unfold first hand.
One Experiment donor, who was
keen on donating to a dinosaur project put up by University of Washington paleontologist Christian Sidor, wanted to give her son exactly what Cindy had dreamed about.
Cindy said: "Sidor received an e-mail from a mother asking if she could send her son on the trip. Her son was still very young likely in elementary or middle school. Dr. Sidor obviously could not take a kid on the trip, but he wrote back saying that there may be a chance for her son to be involved with his research in a more hands on way when he was older. The mom made a large donation to the project afterwards."
A few professors are already successfully crowdfunding their own projects. Experiment will open that up to everyone and give donors more options of interesting things to fund. There are thousands of projects that would get a specific group of people as excited as the general public was about the meteor, but they have no way to find them, or participate in the experiences as they happen.
Jose Gomez-Marquez is a professor at MIT who has experienced the pain of grant writing first hand for the do-it-yourself medical devices he makes for the developing world.
"Crowdsourcing science can disrupt the established trends of of prevailing funding targets. It can provide gateways to respond to patients faster than the academic research process as long as it doesn't get hijacked into funding more science for the sake of publishing instead of our quest for impact in everyday people. But like every good experiment, science projects can often fail --- and the backers have to accept those possibilities," Gomez-Marquez said.