What they do: Experiment is a crowdfunding platform for science research. We transform everyone with a credit card into a modern day patron of science. Researchers from over 150 institutions and universities are using Experiment to fund important seed-stage research.Why it's a big deal: Since 2010, 80% of principal investigators spend most of their time writing grant proposals and 67% are struggling with less funding. "Big science" has become synonymous with "budget cuts" .Experiment empowers people to invest in their futures. By creating a crowdfunding marketplace for science research, Experiment helps scientists break through bureaucratic barriers and lets patrons make financial contributions to meaningful research. With over $1M in funded projects and 9,000 backers, it's clear that people are eager to make a contribution to the research that matters to them. Experiment opens up possibilities for researchers, leading to more possibilities for our future.
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.
“Not stopping until we fund the cure for cancer, an intergalactic photon rocket, and a time machine.”- Denny's email signature
"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.
What's new about what you're making?
The only current alternative to directly supporting science is giving through large foundations like the Komen Foundation. Like many large publicly funded institutions scientific donations flow through a giant black hole and 95% of donors never see the results that their donations helped produce. It is an impersonal and detached process with little satisfaction for the public.
There is a huge need for direct access to projects and research. Experiment is the platform for the public to donate and then engage with the projects they’re funding, which has never been done before.
What do you understand about your business that other companies in it just don't get?
People don’t give to science research in exchange for tangible trinkets (t-shirts, mugs, keychains – a la Kickstarter). Physical rewards only work in a pre-purchase or prototype crowdfunding model where the goods have value. Many of our competitors (Petridish, Scifund, 16 others) are struggling because they tried to replicate the Kickstarter model. We built Experiment based on the belief that people fundamentally want to support science for the impact.
We know this because we ask every single one of our donors “what do you want” after they give, and they all give the same answer of “I want to see progress, and I want to know my money made an impact”. That is why we are building ways to help researchers communicate with their backers better than ever before.
We also know that it’s important to work directly with universities and foundations to set up the right process for the funds, because those relationships turn into a lot of high quality research projects.
Why did you pick this idea to work on?
Science funding for research today is broken. Traditional funding agencies like the NIH, NSF, and other large grantwriting institutions are unable to support 80% of the research proposals they receive. The number of high-impact, early-stage ideas that go unfunded is tremendous.
There is also nowhere on the web where non-scientist can closely follow science as it evolves. While popular interest in breakthrough events like the Mars rover and the Higgs Boson are showing that people want to be closer to the scientific process, consumption of scientific exploration is limited to news headlines or National Geographic magazine.
We know how the scientific process works, and we know that there are magical stories in the process that can instantly engage people. We are building the community that brings scientists and the public closer together in an experience that they both love.
How do you make money?
We generate revenue through a 5% transaction fee on fully funded projects. To date we’ve raised over $1.1M for projects.
How big can this company be?
The NIH budget is $30 billion and they reject 80% of their applicants - that’s $120 billion in rejected applications. Assuming half of those 42,000 rejected applications are fundable and can produce preliminary data with $25,000, that is a $525M revenue/$26M profit opportunity for only health-related projects (which represent 1/10th of total research in the U.S.)
We can be a billion dollar company.
Who are your competitors?
At this point, the competitor we take seriously is Indiegogo. They recently decided to step into science crowdfunding, but they are also tackling many other crowdfunding areas. They have significantly more resources, and a lot of users, but building a community around the research is really important. We don’t think Indiegogo has succeeded like Kickstarter or Kiva in this regard. Our goal is to showcase the stories behind these projects one by one and create the community that scientists and donors want.
How do you acquire new projects?
We have two primary acquisition channels, one is direct contact with universities and professors, the other is organic word-of-mouth growth. 12% of the professors and researchers that we contact eventually launch a campaign on Experiment. We also approach researchers from the top down by forming relationships with universities and deans directly. Several deans of research have approved the use of Experiment by their faculty and students, which instantly results in dozens of new projects. The final way we acquire projects is from word-of-mouth within university departments and among the greater public. Funding the future of scientific advancement is exciting for many of our users and they spread the word faster and further than we ever could.
525 researchers have launched projects so far on Experiment, and we still have dozens of other potential acquisition channels.
How do you acquire backers?
The best way for us to bring on users is to acquire more projects. Every new researcher solicits their own community for funding, which results in ~100 new users and 10,000 - 30,000 new pageviews per campaign. Ten new projects may equal 1,000 new backers. And 8% of our backers become repeat backers. So the more projects we gather, the more users we retain until growth becomes entirely organic.
What keeps you up at night? What's your biggest risk?
Not moving fast enough. Worst of all is potentially missing out on a research project that could have a massive impact.
What has been hardest for you to figure out thusfar?
Learning to communicate effectively with large bureaucratic institutions like universities has been the most difficult.
Why do you think the requests rejected by the NIH actually deserve funding?
This question comes from the fact that in the last year, NIH rejected 82% of the proposals they received, which means they rejected over 49,000 grant proposals. This graph shows how this number of overall rejections is only going up.
This message here, however, isn’t that funding model is inefficient, because there are many checks and balances in the current funding model that serve a defined purpose to ensure quality of research. The peer review process and rigorous application cycle of an NIH R01 is incredibly important for filtering promising proposals that are ready for the next phase.
Rather, the real problem here is a reflection of the ever-increasing competition for an ever-decreasing pool of available funds. A recent NSF survey shows the increasing number of graduate level scientists who are entering the research system, while funding agency acceptance rates remain at near record lows. While we are able to identify the top 10 researchers in a field to fund at any given time, the funds available can now only support the top 8, and the pool of exceptional candidates has grown to 20. This is a story that we’ve also heard repeated from non-profit foundations and grant-writing institutions.
What is the biggest challenge you face right now?
It has become easy for us to acquire new projects, but the hardest part is ensuring those projects succeed by educating researchers on how to market their projects effectively. Scientists are excellent at researching and pushing humanity forward, but have less experience selling their ideas and marketing them to the larger public. New researchers have access to an online community where they can learn best practices from researchers who have run campaigns in the past which in some cases has led to deeper collaboration. We are also building an online education guide to make it even easier for researchers to learn how to market their campaigns.
What will Experiment look like in 10 Years?
Magic School Bus + Bill Nye the Science Guy + NOVA special + National Geographic = Experiment
What is the long term vision for Experiment?
The bigger opportunity is not just fixing a broken system, but changing the definition of viable research from the current institutional approach to one where anyone with the right question, background, and audience can raise funds to do their research. Our quantum leap will be when we broaden the definition of where science is done beyond universities and institutions. Experiment will be the funding portal for institutional projects, but also a platform enabling everyone to pose scientific questions and raise money to find the answers.
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