If you had been given an opportunity to be part, in some small way, of the Apollo Missions, would you have jumped at the chance? Personally, I’d have been over the moon!
Unfortunately, it has been rare indeed for the general public to be invited to become involved in scientific research. That has now changed with the launch of PetriDish.org, a website designed to crowdsource funding for scientific research projects.
A true Innovation in funding scientific research I recently spoke to PetriDish.org founder Matt Salzberg about the passion, potential and possibilities that PetriDish encompasses.
Your path to this crowdfunding project is not necessarily a standard one. How did you get involved with PetriDish?
I used to work at the Blackstone Group doing large media and software buyouts. Then I went to Harvard Business School as I really wanted to do something more creative, more innovative with my career. I explored a couple of different business ideas and decided that the best way for me to get a good overview of the technology world, and what’s going on in innovation, was to join a venture capital firm. So, I joined Bessemer Venture Partners, which is a big international venture capital firm.
For about a year and a half I worked on investments in mobile digital media, the internet, etc. And one of the things I observed there was that a lot of really, really transformative businesses were being created using the internet as a reach medium to pool the collective actions of many small people to make bigger things happen.
There are a couple of examples of this. Groupon is an innovative company that pools the collective buying power of people to get deals on stuff. Kiva is a good example of a company that’s pooled the collective actions of small people to microfinance in the developing world. DonorsChoose is another example of an innovative company that has pooled collective resource to help fund classroom projects.
There had been nothing really done applying this to science and research; and they’re obviously areas that dramatically need greater funding. Science and research fuel future innovation; the advancement of society is very dependent upon new discoveries and advances in a variety of fields.
This has always been a passion area of mine. I wanted to take this business model, which I had sort of seen being applied in other areas, and use it to transform the way that research and science is funded.
Do you see it as a business model that is focussed on profits or is it something that you’re doing from a position of altruism?
It’s somewhat a combination of both.
We’re a very small, lean team at the moment, with a small group of investors. We just launched at the end of February, so we’re still putting a lot of the pieces in place to continue to scale up quite frankly.
We wanted to create a sustainable organisation and we think the for-profit model, for this particular business, is the right one because it allows us to take on investors and be self-sustainable over time.
But, the reason we’re doing it is because of the mission, which is to help accelerate the pace of innovation by making the funding process more researcher-friendly. Right now to get funding is a very long, bureaucratic and difficult process.
Isn’t it just.
It could take as much as a year and for many reasons, including political ones, certain areas of science don’t get funded as they should.
The public is very interested in these things; there is an educational component wherein the public can get involved and learn about science and be involved in new discoveries. We’re very mission-focused in that sense. Our goal is to really transform the way science is funded in order to accelerate innovation. We chose the for-profit model because we think it’s the right way to bring the proper resources to bear.
We take a five percent share of the money being raised to help fund our ongoing operations. That’s in comparison to a typical charity, which takes 20 percent or more in terms of overhead because of all the inefficiencies that exist within a non-profit infrastructure. We are able to attract more talent and more resources and then allow more money to go to the end researcher.
You mentioned politics and it brought to mind that there are groups within America, where you are based, that bring to bear their own beliefs, be it religious or political, in determining what research can and cannot be funded – stem cell research comes to mind. Is that something that you are going to have to deal with?
I think that’s one of the inefficiencies that exist in the current funding process. I think stem cell research is one example of a really interesting area of science that is underfunded because of political reasons. And that’s okay. I think it’s totally acceptable for a government that has multiple agendas to not fund science that, for one reason or the other, they aren’t a good fit for.
That just means there is an opportunity to pick up the slack there, and we’re trying to facilitate that for the private individuals who do want to see stem cell research. Though we haven’t done a stem cell research project yet, we would.
There are other areas as well, like certain kinds of areas of social science or climate change research or ecology, which are relatively underfunded areas. The government has, in some cases, very different priorities than individuals may or may not have depending on the project at hand. We’re here to democratise that decision where individuals can step up and say: “I want to see this project happen.” We provide an avenue to make that happen.
We appealed directly to the researchers. As we bring the researchers directly to donors, we don’t have to go through a process of specifically working out of partnership with the whole organisation or institution. We post the project and if people want to connect directly with the researchers, they can; it allows us to do it much faster that way quite frankly.
What is the average age of your research participants? Are they very established researchers or are they students?
It’s a big range. We have projects from very established tenured professors who are somewhat older to graduate students, and we have everything in between. We have post-docs, young professors, full tenured professors, all across the board. And everyone comes to us for different reasons.
Some come to us because they are a grad students and they want to raise a small amount of money to do something and they don’t have access to capital. Or they’re a tenured professor, and already have funding, but they want to do an incremental piece of work that their current funding doesn’t allow for, or they want to share their research with the public and get the public involved. There’s a ton of reasons why people do it.
How do you look to involve the public; for instance, would you look to connect with schools?
We’re trying to get the public involved in a variety of different ways. Right now our awareness efforts are mostly focused in the online sphere, thanks to people like you who are helping us get the word out there.
Via a variety of other channels such as the press, online social media and other kinds of marketing we’re getting the word out. In the future we expect to be doing organisational partnerships and maybe even some partnerships with schools, as you suggest. But right now we’re very focused on press, social media and online marketing.
And how do you envisage funders getting involved?
There are a lot of things that the backers get. In the minimum they receive updates and information on the research over time, so they can hear about the latest discoveries and interesting things happening there. That’s a cool experience in itself.
Then there are different rewards that they can get for backing projects at different levels. They might get naming rights to a new species of animal… we had people do that on our site. We had one project, which was a Harvard astronomer [Dave Kipping] doing a search for an exomoon outside the Solar system.
The person who backed his project [Mike Dodds] at the highest level was able to name the supercomputer Dave bought.
We have another researcher who is doing research on the size and composition of algae spore structures, and if you back his project he’ll do a pressing of a dried algae specimen for you to hang up in your apartment or your house. The public gets all sorts of things.
And there is a field component too, if the public wants. If a researcher is able to offer in-person lectures or a trip into the field with a researcher, the public can get involved that way as well. There are a lot of different interesting things there.
I can imagine people getting very excited about things like that. Do you think at some point it would be possible for people who are supporting PetriDish projects to nominate research projects that they think would be of interest?
Absolutely. We’ve already had people suggest projects to us they think we should work with. If the public has a research project they’re aware of, we’d love to hear about it; we’re very open to that.
I know that you recently launched some new projects covering such varied areas of research as the redrawing of an ancient supercontinent, decoding hyena calls in the Maasai Mara, saving Nicaragua’s last population of jaguars, and investigating estrogen levels in back yards. How do you choose which projects you get involved with?
Fundamentally we want to be a place where the public can decide what project they want to see happen. Our fundamental philosophy is one of the democratisation. However, we do screen projects to some extent and the projects we choose, we choose on basis of a couple of things.
First, the affiliation and quality of the researcher, they have to be from a reputable university or institution. The second screening is on the project itself. Is this project interesting? Is it meaningful science? Is it accessible to the public, so that they can understand it well enough to decide if they want to get involved? And thirdly, we do a little bit of screen when we weed out obvious junk science: things like perpetual motion machines or paranormal activity. But, aside from that, we really want to be a place where the public acumen finds interesting projects and decides what they want to see happen.
Do you have a pet project? Something that you personally would like to see funded?
Well, there are tons of them. I’d rather not name one of them at the risk of eliminating someone else.
You don’t want to admit to having a favourite child.
Exactly. But in many ways some of the projects are a little bit of a reflection of the areas that I personally am very interested in. We focus on field work, astronomy, biology, ecology, archaeology…. we have some very cool archaeology projects coming up. We’re going to have some medical and biotech projects coming up, too.
Were you a science geek in school?
I was. I wasn’t a scientist but I was definitely very interested in doing research. I was an economics major and did a lot of economics research when I was an undergrad. I’ve always been personally passionate about science. I’m the kind of person that consumes a lot of content, I always loved reading about the latest discoveries.
Can I assume it’s not important for these projects to have the potential to become profit-making enterprises?
It’s not important at all for us. In fact most of the projects are not going to be profit-making enterprises at all. People back the projects so that they can be a part of the story, learn about the research and feel like they’ve helped make a new discovery happen.
So the funders are, in essence, patrons of science rather than investors.
Right. Our backers don’t get equity in the projects. They get an affiliation with them, a reward and a great story out of it.
Is there a minimum or maximum amount of funds that you’re generally seeking?
There’s no minimum for PetriDish projects and technically there won’t be a maximum, but we don’t allow projects that are so large that we don’t think they will get funded because of their size.
If someone came to us and said, “I need 100 million dollars to build a particle collider,” we’d say “This is not the right place to raise that money.” Right now we’re focusing on projects that are less than $15,000. Although if a project comes to us that we think is so exciting, and the people behind it really understand this medium and how to raise awareness… We actually have a couple of projects we’re going to take a little bit higher.
How do you measure success for a project?
Well, there’s a timeline. At the outset, the project creator sets a timeframe and the goal they have to hit. If they hit the goal by the end of the time, then the project gets funded; if they don’t, it doesn’t. That’s a very clear metric of success.
So you see a successful endeavour as getting the project funded rather than measuring on the successful conclusion of the project itself?
Well, there are two components. We’re trying to help these projects get funded and get off the ground. We don’t get involved after the projects are funded in terms of doing the science. Though, of course we would love to see the science find useful and interesting results and great discoveries. That would certainly be another element of success… that would be wonderful!
Are you involved in building an ecosystem around the project?
Once we, hopefully, get the projects funded, we don’t step away. We’ve built this community around the projects, where project creators can provide updates and people can learn about the results over time.
On the PetriDish website.
We stay involved, but we don’t contribute to doing the science per se. Perhaps the community we’re building can help in some ways.
And the website enables people to keep up to date with the projects and see how they’re moving forward.
If intellectual property is created during the project, is that solely owned by the researchers, or the organisation that they’re working with?
Yes. Backers don’t get any intellectual property. It stays with the existing structure.
And nor does PetriDish?
We don’t either.
That’s very altruistic of you.
How would you characterise the people you think will get involved in the funding, as I think they may be somewhat different to typical investors.
The kind of people that back our projects are the ones that get excited about being part of new discoveries, that want to build relationships with researchers. They’re your typical viewer of National Geographic or Discovery Channel and ScienceMedia.
You’re buying an experience by being a part of the research in action and in many case you’re getting tangible rewards. Those are the kind of people who back stuff on our site.
PetriDish may also be the thing that begins to make science sexy again. It’s been a long time since science was something that students yearned to get into.
Absolutely; that’s part of the hope.
You’re based in the US, but will you be looking at funding international project as well as US-based projects?
So, researchers from around the world can connect with you?
Yes. We’ve already talked with many of them who reached out to us and we have a couple of international projects in the pipeline.
What is going to define success with regards to PetriDish for you personally?
My hope is that over time we transform the way science is funded and allow new capital to come in, which enables new discoveries to happen that otherwise wouldn’t be. We’re raising hundreds of millions of dollars a year for science and research projects.
[Kim and Matt Skyped from their homes in Sydney and New York.]
— MORE —
Curious about some of the researchers? Well I had an opportunity to ask a few of them some questions:
JOHN VUCETICH: Associate Professor at Michigan Technological University, John is working with the wolves of Isle Royale National Park
With the Wolves of Isle Royale in an extremely precarious position, how important is a successful Petridish round of fundraising to the your project?
The wolves of Isle Royale have never disappointed – when we observe them carefully they always teach something valuable. In the past, these wolves and their DNA taught us about “the old grey guy,” - a wolf that had immigrated from Canada in 1997, when it crossed an ice bridge that had formed that year. The old grey guy – and his infusion of new genes g the population with of new genes – changed the history of wolves on Isle Royale. The details of that finding contained insight that has been of valuable for the conservation of many endangered species.
Isle Royale wolves have survived many tough times. And when they survive this threat it will almost certainly involve a great comeback. And DNA from wolf scats will be the only way to know the details of that comeback. Help us be a part of discovering what happens next to this historically and scientifically important population of wolves.
This project will either be a remarkably detailed case study of how a population goes extinct (if that’s what happens), or it will be a remarkably detailed case study of how a scientifically and culturally important wolf population comes back from the edge of extinction.” Either outcome is scientifically important
RACHEL ARONSON: Master’s Candidate at the School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, University of Washington and currently a Science Writing Fellow at Washington Sea Grant
I believe that your project, ‘Climate Refugees: Don’t let their culture melt away‘ will resonate with people from all over the globe. Along with funding, how else could people assist you with your research? Would you be interested in hearing from Climate Refugees from around the world?
I am actually in Iceland for a seminar on Inuit sovereignty, writing a paper on Inuit-led education reform as an adaptation to climate change. So I’ve been thinking a lot this week about my petridish project!
Climate change is a global issue that affects every living being. “Climate refugees” are just some of the first people to experience some of the worst effects of climate change, the physical loss of their home places. Through accidents of geography, economics and culture, it could really be any of us.
I think every person on the planet has a valid story to tell about the effect of climate change on their lives. I would love it if people sent me their stories (great idea!), especially since I plan to use interviewing as my primary research technique for this project. Right now, I think I’m the only Petridish researcher in the social sciences, and I really want to explore what that means over the next month of funding time– maybe I can share climate stories from people around the world!
GEOFF GILLER: Graduate student at Yale’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.
Funding for your project ‘Are there Estrogens in Your Backyard‘ is progressing very quickly – over half way there in only four days! – and you’re welcoming donations ranging anywhere from $1 – $1,000. For $1,000 donors are invited to come and spend a day in the field, “flipping logs and getting muddy” with you and your team. How important is the PetriDish funding to your research?
We’re thrilled by the rapidity of our fund-raising. Part of the reason is where the donations are coming from; naturally, the first people to hear about this project are our family and friends, who are more likely to donate because they know us personally. But as the project gets re-posted and re-Tweeted and forwarded, the circle of supporters has expanded; there are several donors on the page that none of us knows. That’s one of the great things about this site: on top of raising funds, we’re also raising awareness about our topic of research. Since we’re dealing with contamination in residential areas, it’s something that is pretty universally relevant.
For our project, this money is extremely important. Water testing for chemicals like these is extremely expensive. We’ll be purchasing specialized devices that are designed to be used in situations like these, when the concentrations of the chemicals in question are quite small. The devices remain in the bodies of water for extended periods of time, which concentrates the chemicals we’re looking for and increases the likelihood of their detection. The problem with these chemicals is that they can have health impacts at very low concentrations, so we need more specialized equipment to detect them; typical water sampling might not detect them, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not present or causing health problems for humans and wildlife.