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“Our mission is to create a world where anyone can be a scientist”

Crowdfunding scientific research: Interview with Experiment

Cindy Wu, co-founder, Experiment

We interviewed Cindy Wu, co-founder of Experiment, a platform for discovering, funding and sharing science. With one of the coolest mission statements we’ve heard: “to create a world where anyone can be a scientist”, Experiment enables scientists of every professional level to fund research – accelerating scientific discoveries through collaboration and information-sharing.  Cindy answered some questions about Experiment and shared some of her thoughts on crowdfunding.

What sets Experiment apart from other crowdfunding platforms?

CW: “Experiment was built for science and scientists. This is a place on the internet for people to propose research projects and for people to fund research projects. The reward for backers is the process and result of the research project, so we don’t support tangible rewards. Our mission is to create a world where anyone can be a scientist.”

When did Experiment launch?  Can you share any insight into its creation – what need or gap did you see in the market?

CW: “We launched in April 2012. The vision to create Experiment started when I was 19 and Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) awarded me a grant for young scientists who have no research experience. During the year that HHMI funded me, I worked on designing new immunotherapies by engineering immune cells. That summer, I also worked with a team of undergraduates to design a new anthrax therapeutic. Denny (Luan, co-founder of Experiment) and I published the research in a peer-reviewed journal and the army is now doing follow-up studies.

“After designing the new anthrax therapeutic, I discovered the drug could also be used as an antibiotic for generic infections. When I asked my professor where I could find $5-10K to test out my hypothesis, he told me: “the system doesn’t fund people like you.” The funders today are so conservative that they only fund the most obvious ideas– and certainly not ones from undergraduate students that don’t have a PhD.

“We initially built Experiment for ourselves, but quickly found that early stage funding for ideas was just as big of a problem for tenured faculty. The initial idea for Experiment was inspired by Denny’s involvement as a University of Washington campus leader for Kiva.org, building a Kiva for science.”

How would you advise individuals or entrepreneurs to select the crowdfunding platform that will serve them best, from such a crowded market of compelling options?

CW: “Do your research. Understand what types of projects each platforms support. There is a difference between funding platforms that support tangible rewards and platforms that don’t support tangible rewards. Understand if tangible rewards make sense for your project.

“During a crowdfunding campaign you want to make sure that you get all the data you need to be successful. Look for platforms that provide you with analytics. Who is visiting your site and from what sources? This should be in real-time. It is unlikely any of the larger platforms will do marketing for you, but you should look at how big their community is and what percentage are repeat donors.

“Many platforms have lots of one time donors that are very unlikely to donate to your project. Check on this beforehand so you set your expectations for how much your team will need to raise.

“If you are running a larger campaign you may want to contract a team to help you. When looking ask these teams for past examples of crowdfunding campaigns they’ve helped with and set clear expectations of what they would be responsible for.”

Can you give us an idea of a typical successful project idea for your crowdfunding platform?

CW: “Projects on Experiment are well-defined research projects. The project has a clear plan to try to answer a specific research question. An ideal project has a way to engage the backers in the science, but is not required. This is an ideal project: experiment.com/gmoexperiment

How important is the choice of platform for any given crowdfunding campaign or potential project?

CW: “It is important especially if you want to utilize the platform to keep your donors engaged until the end of the project. Delivery and engagement are just as important as raising the money if you want to keep a loyal community. Many less popular or newer platforms only do a good job of providing a payment platform for your project. Think about your project as a long term investment. If you are going to be sticking with this one platform to keep your donors updated and eventually share the final outcomes with your community you will want to choose wisely. Think about what you need for your community to be successful and research which platforms support your project best.”

What is the single thing that you find yourself repeating to first-time crowdfunders or wishing that people knew before they go live with a crowdfunding project?

CW: “Crowdfunding always starts with your friends and family. It is close to impossible for your project to be funded entirely by strangers on the internet. People have this misconception that people on the internet will just find the project and give. This rarely happens. Most traffic is self-directed or directed to the project page through some effort put in by the team. There are clear techniques that can be replicated for projects, but you must put in the work to get the return.”

What features, functions or services do you offer that sets you apart from other platforms? What are your fees?

CW: “We support research projects only. We also work well with academic institutions which are often hard to navigate. Scientists do not give tangible rewards in return for donations, scientists share the scientific research process through what we call ‘Lab Notes’ on Experiment. Scientist are able to use the Lab Notes forever for free to keep their community engaged and updated. We also have a Journal where scientists can publish their results for their community at experiment.com/journal. Each project also receives a digital object identifier (DOI number), so that other scientists can cite a specific project.  We take an 8% fee if a project is fully funded. Experiment is an all-or-nothing funding platform.”

 Check out Experiment at: www.experiment.com, read updates and news at http://blog.experiment.com/, follow Experiment  on Facebook and follow @lets_experiment on Twitter.

Some stats from Experiment*:

Amount pledged to date: $6,285,138

Researchers: 6,623     Live projects: 68     Lab notes published: 4,936

Backers: 26,727      Repeat backers: 1,482

Average pledge size: $162

Launched projects: 1,136     Funded projects: 481

*As of May 13, 2016