Californian startup Experiment, a sort of Kickstarter for scientific research, is trying to bring a new approach to scientific research funding. The crowdfunding platform is working to place the human element back at the centre of scientific discoveries.

Crowdfunding pushing the frontiers of scientific research

Scientific research projects, whether we are talking about mounting an expedition to Tanzania to study the natural habitat of chimpanzees or working in the lab to develop a new molecule, not only require substantial funding but also take a considerable amount of time to bring to fruition and do not always run as smoothly as hoped.  

While unlocking funds to launch your own startup may be no easy task, scientific research has to strive even harder to obtain finance. Moreover, a promising idea is not in itself enough to attract investment; researchers will need to submit a set of preliminary findings in order to apply for a public grant. However, without initial funds it will usually be impossible to gather and analyse the preliminary data needed to support the grant application.

Moreover, as Denny Luan, one of the co-founders of the Experiment platform, told L’Atelier during the recent meetup in San Francisco: ‟When you’re an undergraduate biology student you’re usually buzzing with project ideas but the response is often the same: you’re not sufficiently qualified yet. You need at least a PhD to gain credibility in the eyes of your peers and professors and also potential sponsors. Lots of people have experienced this rather frustrating situation, starting with me!

Emphasising the central role of people in scientific discoveries

Crowdfunding platform Experiment was set up in response to this situation. Its purpose is to support scientific discovery. Believing strongly in the importance of the role of people in scientific advances, and determined to develop the ‘crowd’ approach to obtaining support, Experiment’s founders went through the Y Combinator incubator in 2013. “We wanted to create a community centred on scientific research where human interaction could have free rein,” explained Denny Luan.

Like Kickstarter, Experiment provides a means for donors to receive a gift in return for their financial contribution. On the Experiment platform however this means that the scientists receiving donations will share their data and scientific protocols with donors.

Projet Open Insulin

‘Open Insulin’ project: supporting the development of a generic form of insulin

Pushing back the frontiers of innovation in scientific research

Among the projects that have been financed so far is an initiative to build an open source protocol to develop low-cost insulin. Although some 415 million people all over the world are today living with some form of diabetes, the price tag for the necessary insulin treatment is not decreasing but is actually on the rise. After a century of medical use, there is still no generic insulin  available on the market. The Open Insulin campaign, which is led by a group of researchers based in Oakland, California, has received support from over 230 contributors. It raised $16,656 in April 2015, which enabled the campaign group to finance the first stages of their work.

Experiment is basically meant as an alternative to initial research grant funding, enabling scientists to gather the vital preliminary data so that they can then apply for further funding and unlock larger sums.  The – highly laudable – aim of the Experiment founders is to allow researchers with promising ideas to clear some of the obstacles to creativity and innovation, thus speeding up the work and widening the scope of experimentation. Since the community was originally launched in 2012 under the name Microryza, 400 scientific projects have been funded for a total amount of $5 million. Experiment has recently been building on its success to broaden its scope to other research fields such as art and design and social and political sciences.

By Pauline Canteneur