Startups + science: crowdfunding as micro-patronage

Here’s part II of the Science-meets-startups series I’ve been writing over at O’Reilly Radar! The biggest problem in science today is the cost of conducting experiment, so this one looks at crowdfunding as a way to supplement experimental funds.

Throughout the 20th century, most scientific research funding has come from one of two sources: government grants or private corporations. Government funding is often a function of the political and economic climate, so researchers who rely on it risk having to deal with funding cuts and delays. Those who are studying something truly innovative or risky often find it difficult to get funded at all. Corporate research is most often undertaken with an eye toward profit, so projects that are unlikely to produce a return on investment are often ignored or discarded.

If one looks to history, however, scientific research was originally funded by individual inventors and wealthy patrons. These patrons were frequently rewarded with effusive acknowledgements of their contributions; Galileo, for example, named the moons of Jupiter after the Medicis (though the names he chose ultimately did not stick).

There has been a resurgence of that model — though perhaps more democratic — in the modern concept of crowdfunding…Science-specific platforms have appeared on the scene. Petridish is currently showcasing projects looking for funding to study everything from rare butterflies to mass-fatality events. On Microryza, you can fund investigations into cannibalism in T-Rex or viral causes of lung cancer. RocketHub also has a science-specific project roster and recently had a researcher raise funds to study the psycopharmacology of amphetamines. Widely covered as “Help this scientist build a meth lab,” the researcher’s write-up of his proposal, including his reasons for crowdfunding it, is excellent and worth a read.