Science researchers turn to crowdfunding for projects

Sacramento City College professor David Wyatt, shown at the Bohart Museum at UC Davis, used crowdfunding to help fund a Belize research trip.
Sacramento City College professor David Wyatt, shown at the Bohart Museum at UC Davis, used crowdfunding to help fund a Belize research trip.

Exotic insects, moths and butterflies abound in the lush jungles of Belize, but they’re largely absent in the Central American country’s museums. Early last year, Sacramento City College professor David Wyatt decided he wanted to change that.

Until recently, to fund such a project, he most likely would have applied for money from a government agency, the source of financial support for the majority of academic research.

Instead, like a growing number of researchers looking for resources, Wyatt turned to Experiment, a crowdfunding platform that exclusively funds science.

“We were donating all of our time, but still the equipment to establish an entomology collection is pretty substantial,” Wyatt said. “Once I started parsing out how much it was going to cost, I realized that there was no way I would get funding through any other traditional sources. There was no way I would get (National Science Foundation) funding.”

Researchers like Wyatt have instead been relying on crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Experiment to raise money. As a result, not only is a variety of science being funded that may not have received support otherwise, but the public is having a larger say in how researchers spend their time and energy.

In the 2014 fiscal year, money from the science foundation accounted for 25 percent of the total federal budget for university research, yet winning funding has become more competitive in the face of more budget cuts as well as applicants. In 2001, people applying to the foundation for funding enjoyed a success rate of 31 percent, but in 2014 that had dropped to 23 percent. And while the foundation funds a variety of science, it doesn’t grant money for human health research, which is typically supported by the National Institutes of Health. In 2014, that agency had a budget of $30 billion, but an overall grant success rate of just 18 percent, compared to 30 percent in 2003.

With Experiment, Wyatt’s team was able to raise $7,905 from 78 backers, which let him launch his dreamed-of insect exhibition and bring back duplicate specimens to study at the Bohart Museum of Entomology at UC Davis.

Wyatt isn’t the only researcher in Sacramento to benefit from crowdsourcing. UC Davis’ Genome Center project scientist Holly Ganz partially financed a project called Kittybiome through Kickstarter, an exciting tactic that she said let her team “reach out to a community that really cared about cats and the microbiome,” or the microscopic world surrounding felines.

The Kittybiome project uses DNA sequencing technology to study the ecosystem of bacteria, fungi and other microscopic organisms that live in and around domestic cats, cats from shelters, and wild cats such as lions and pumas. Ganz wants to study how different kinds of social behavior among cats affect the microbiome, but the work may lead to personalized therapies for afflictions such as feline immunodeficiency and inflammatory bowel diseases.

Just as therapies for humans may not be one-size-fits-all, “there may not be one solution for cats. Therapies need to be tailored,” Ganz said.

When Ganz’s campaign ended in June, she had raised almost eight times her goal through 298 individual donations. Backers of the Kickstarter program were rewarded with scarves, shirts and books, but one of the most popular rewards was the sequencing of an individual cat’s microbiome for $99 a pop. Most bacteria contain a specific region, known as 16S rRNA, that acts as a flag and lets researchers extract and amplify bacterial DNA from the cat’s sample that can be classified with the help of a database.

More than 100 people chose such sequencing, while others sequenced the microbiome of shelter cats from the Vancouver Orphan Kitten Rescue Association and the Berkeley Animal Shelter.

Gantz attributes her success partly to good viral marketing that included cat-filled videos and traction on social media.

To prepare for the launch of Kittybiome, Ganz attended the Science x Kickstarter Hackathon at the New York University Tisch School of the Arts, where she worked with designers, artists and writers on how to build an appealing campaign.

Aurora Thornhill, co-organizer of the Hackathon, said among scientists, “there was a big knowledge gap between how to do science vs. how to run a Kickstarter project.” To that end, the Hackathon could mark the launch of a community on Kickstarter where scientists are able to share tips for success.

Scientists on Experiment typically try to raise about $5,000, and the company wants to keep the average project size on the smaller side because it allows for high-risk, early-stage projects with a better potential for a great accident or discovery.

“If we don’t continue to invest in early stages, we won’t have a pool to fund in late stages,” said Cindy Wu, co-founder of Experiment.

Experiment is not trying to replace government funding, Wu added. The company is attempting something fundamentally different.

Projects with smaller budgets and big ideas, like those pursued by Wyatt and Ganz, would most likely not be funded by traditional means today, but materialize because the public believes in their potential.

“Experiment has added an additional level of richness to my life by being able to bring the work I do to the general public,” Wyatt said.

Katie L. Strong: (916) 321-1101, @katielstrong