One of the most talked about and frustrating science topics on social media and during coffee break, is the low success rates by science granting agencies. The current finding climate for basic research in Canada, the United States, and in many places has reached an unprecedented low. The golden era of 25-30% success rates is a thing of the past, and if you are unlucky to have missed those peak years to develop your career, you are likely a mid or early career scientist facing this new reality.
It is extremely demotivating to approach writing a grant when you have an approximate 10% chance to secure funding. Researchers are not bothering to miss out on the narrow window of summer heat by writing grants with fall deadlines. To combat this universal challenge, many scientists are now exploring crowdfunding as an alternative approach to raise money to support basic research projects. While biotech start-ups are an obvious candidate to use crowdfunding, I am referring to early stage, idea-based projects, that may or may not have commercialization potential.
The first crowdfunding science project in 2013 was to raise money to construct a bioluminescent “Glowing Plant”. The pitch was to use light producing plants as a natural light source and to replace electric or gas light sources. The novelty of the crowdsourcing idea to fund a science project was enough to raise almost half a million dollars, well above their intended goal of $65,000. The potential of synthetic biology captured the imagination of funders and didn’t suffer the fear of producing a genetically modified organism. As recently discussed in the Atlantic, the project has ended, run out of money and was not successful in creating a final product. It was not surprising, doing science is hard and they were unable to achieve their scientific goals.
While kickstarter hosts the infrastructure for many crowdfunding projects, there are now specialized crowdfunding providers that feature research projects, including experiment.com or petridish.org. They present projects in diverse research fields, with a wide range of budgets, aimed to support principal investigator faculty members, startups and iGEM teams. A successfully crowdfunded project was based on studying climate change in the Falkland islands, and its impact on penguins (and other animals). The project raised over $10,000, which was roughly half of the actual total budget needed to complete the project. There seems to be a trend to ask for a portion of the actual budget needed. It may make the funding more tempting, knowing that there are phases and the upfront costs are smaller. I see parallels in standard grant competitions, where we undercut the actual budget, either angling to be high value, or lacking in confidence due to low success outcomes. Upon final analysis, this scientist indicated that crowdfunding is not easy, it requires a huge social media campaign, and in this case, a large twitter following was probably a key piece to success. In addition, there is constructing a website, making a captivating movie and being available to respond to timely questions from potential backers.
The stage has been set and I was happy to discover that there are many really interesting synthetic biology projects hoping to crowdfund their way to some preliminary data, additional funding and ultimately a successful startup. I support these innovators and am excited for the day when biology-based startups grow into a mature stage of success.
My top 3 crowdfunding synthetic biology projects
Engineered skin microbes to sense glucose and produce insulin to cure diabetes
Dr Suzuki Yo is a faculty member at the J Craig Venter Institute and raised $50,000 to for his crowdfunding project titled “Needles be Gone for Type One Diabetes Patients“. This was a particularly interesting collaborative approach involving a researcher at the infamous and private JCVI with a unique crowdfunding venue, the Diabetes Research Connection. Normal skin microbes were recently reported to live 3-6 mm below the skin surface, and often in proximity to blood vessels. Prior to this metagenomic study, most skin microbes were thought to be closer to the surface. Using these bacterial members of the skin microbiome as the chassis for the sensor, the approach is to engineer these host friendly microbes with a glucose sensing machinery, and to couple high glucose measurements with the controlled production of insulin. In this way, skin microbes could in principle replace the function of pancreatic beta cells and effectively “cure” type I diabetes, by restoring normal regulation of blood sugar levels. This is an exciting and unexpected approach so I am not surprised this project raised significant funds, and the upside of the pitch is eliminating the use of needles to deliver insulin. The short-term goal is to demonstrate the proof of concept by painting the glucose sensing, insulin producing microbes onto the skin surface of mice, and to monitor glucose levels in a mouse model.
Aptapaper – aptamer detection of bacterial proteins in paper assays
A University of Michigan iGEM team has been successfully funded in two crowdfunding projects with the aim of building paper-based detection assays of bacterial pathogens. The most recent project is focussed on the detection of Mycobacterium tuberculosis, which causes tuberculosis in up to 10 million people each year. The project relies on the use of aptamers, which are short stretches of DNA that bind to specific proteins. In this case, the target protein is likely a conserved M. tuberculosis protein. The binding of two separate DNA molecules to a target protein facilitates ligation, subsequent conversion to double stranded DNA using in vitro transcription and cell free expression to produce a reporter protein. The reporter could be as simple as an enzyme that cleaves a substrate to produce a coloured product, and therefore a coloured spot on paper. Paper-based assays are inexpensive and have long term stability at room temperature.
DNA typewriter to revolutionize data storage
Since there are more bits of data than grains of sand on the earth, we obviously need new tools to store the data! As our data increases with time, we are faced with a lack of suitable storage and resources to keep up. In principle, this is a proposed encryption system, where text can be encoded within the DNA molecule. Many are pursuing this new medium, given the small scale, stability and abundance of DNA. The program will need to convert english words into a stretch of DNA sequence, where each word fragment is named a BabbleBrick. Once the word fragments have been isolated, they will need to be assembled by a ligation method. The modularity of the system allows for combining BabbleBricks in any order, to construct any sentence of text. All the world’s data can be stored in 1 gram of DNA, in place of millions of USB sticks.
While all of these projects are exciting, the crowdfunding model comes with a few challenges. The typical incentive to seduce a financial backer is to offer some kind of reward. For more straightforward projects, the tangible project being made is often gifted to backers. There is a far greater risk of success for these projects, so it can be difficult to provide a reward. When you include a few dozen or few thousand investors in the crowdfunding, do they have any role in ownership or patents? By simply disclosing the idea, the innovator may be prevented from obtaining patent protection. As all scientists are well aware, the ability to carry out a proposed research is rich in failure, and early stage ideas like these may not reach the finish line. Others may question whether raising a few thousand dollars is worth the risk. I find the opportunity to pursue crowdfunding an excellent funding path for the right project.