March 12, 2013

Unfunded research finds a new crowd

With conventional sources of funding drying up for university researchers due to dwindling federal support, a growing number of academics are turning to crowdfunding, a method which relies on individuals making micro-donations through online social networking Web sites to a given research project. Doctor Larry Thaete, a teaching affiliate of the University of Chicago, is one of the first University members—and academics in the country—to try this method of fundraising for his research.

Several years ago, Thaete, head of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine in the department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Evanston Hospital, lost federal funding for his research on fetal growth. He decided to post his study “Endothelin Antagonism as a Therapy for Fetal Growth Restriction” on uStartups, a new crowdfunding platform that caters specifically to researchers and academics.

uStartups was launched in 2012 by the National Council of Entrepreneurial Tech Transfer (NCET2), a for-profit organization of universities aimed at creating and funding university-based start-ups, in the wake of recent success from other crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter. For instance, an MIT–based project to build a 4,000-pound spider-like robot named Stompy received backing from 1,500 Kickstarter users, reaching their goal of $65,000 in 11 days and exceeding their goal by almost $40,000 in just a few weeks more.

According to the most recent data, in 2011, crowdfunding platforms helped raise a total of $1.5 billion to support underfunded projects, and the number of sites in 2012 rose 60 percent from 2011. Kickstarter alone raised $150 million for arts projects in 2011, more than the National Academy of Arts dished out that year.

The need for additional academic-specific forums like uStartup, independent from sites like Kickstarter, arose not so much from truly unique funding needs—these sites have proven effective in raising money—but from a desire from members of the scientific community to clearly differentiate themselves from sites that host a great number of arts projects, according to Thaete.

“A few years ago, information about popular crowdfunding was distributed to many scientists. But most scientific organizations didn’t want their stuff associated with those sorts of venues. I don’t necessarily agree with it, but that’s what happened. Two years ago or so, Web sites that wanted to devote themselves to serious scientific research were started,” he said.

Even though conventional crowdfunding has proven effective thus far, uStartups has yielded little funding for the three studies that it currently hosts, which include Thaete’s project as well as projects based at the University of Texas–Austin and the Roswell Park Cancer Institute. As of yet, Thaete’s study has raised 2 percent of the funds necessary—$400—to achieve its goal of $20,000.

Still, it seems that Thaete’s expectations have not necessarily been let down.

“I had no idea whether it would be a bust or if it [would] yield a lot, but we decided to try. We lose nothing by trying.”