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Microryza (YC W13) Is A “Kickstarter” For Scientific Research (techcrunch.com)
129 points by irollboozers 1612 days ago | hide | past | web | 35 comments | favorite

Given the furore that occurs whenever a Kickstarter doesn't actually produce the product that people had backed (and mistakenly read as "pre-ordered"), I can't imagine the fuss that will come from funding academic research.

My own research has often diverged down a path that I thought more interesting, dead-ended quickly from what I thought I should do, or turned out to either be trivial if done 80% of the way, or impossible taken 100% of the way, so I couldn't publish it.

I'm sure if I had a crowd behind me, it would have turned into a rabble very quickly. I would not have liked it.

True, but most funding mechanisms, short of no-strings-attached corporate gifts, have some rabble chasing you around, who may get angry in various ways if it doesn't pan out as they had thought they were led to believe. I'd rather have people on the internet disappointed that my research changed direction, than a DARPA program officer on the phone demanding an explanation for missing deliverables...

Although it may not be this way on paper, most academic funding agencies realize that the exact details of the research are likely to change. Usually as long as the general direction of research (e.g., solving problem X), they are ok with it. There's rarely deliverables, as far as I've seen. Though it is true that sometimes the defense agencies want something more concrete.

In a variety of government-funded computer science projects, I've seen everything on the spectrum from "here's some cash, tell us what you do with it" to extremely detailed, measurable deliverables with heavily negotiated deadlines. Some agencies appear to lean one way or the other, and it also seems to depend on the amount of funding. In my experience, more cash means more planning up front and more oversight. No big surprise there.

I think this is different in the sense that there is no physical item with a delivery expected.

Your false-starts bring up a good point. There should be a stated backup plan for failed studies--like giving the money to research project X, or returning it to donors. An honorable way to end the research, with a reputation system could be a great thing.

Eligibility is a bit unclear; is it in transition? On one page [1] it says "We ask that a researcher to be tied to a university or research institution in order to help us ensure the safety of a project's funds." But on another one [2] it says, "we love to see proposals from people outside of research institutions".

[1] https://www.microryza.com/institutions

[2] https://www.microryza.com/faq

Thanks for pointing that out, we'll be sure to clarify that on the site!

For now we are currently able to host research that is based at universities, while private or independent research requires more effort to evaluate and vet the proposal on our end. We are working hard to launch more independent projects soon!

That's a reasonable place to start. I do think crowdsourced money could often go further outside academia, especially in areas with less required lab equipment, but requires more vetting on your part.

One idea could be to branch out of academia starting only with "less risky" areas, e.g. fund independent mathematics research but require medical research to be through existing institutions.

Having to depend on Universities or any other institution for security's sake seems to be a little bit restrictive. Individual or non-institutionalized research should be acceptable. Responsibility with project backers shouldn't depend on that, don't you think? There should be a legal contract anyway.

However, I don't think that this will be the most common profile looking for funding.

There is a great need for greater amounts of private funding in scientific research, but I'm worried that this format could contribute to sensationalism and rushed/biased results.

Funding for a typical research project is in a scale of $10^5~$10^6. And private funding like $5000 or so doesn't do much in most "real" research but may be a part of the whole project and if in this case, it is definitely duplicated (http://www.nature.com/news/funding-agencies-urged-to-check-f...).

Regarding the notion of duplication in grants, there is still a need for both repeating research and following projects with repeated aims, though in a slightly different fashion as promoted through recent reproducibility initiatives (http://www.nature.com/news/independent-labs-to-verify-high-p...).

From their profiles (https://www.microryza.com/about), few of the founders present experience in real research, I doubt a team with little domain expertise aiming to change the game. They did not see the real problem with scientific funding system: to figure out how to spend the money effectively. It seems they were science undergraduate with experience in iGEM (science competition but not real research). Founders with real research experience should be like Quartzy’s (http://www.quartzy.com/about-us/team/).

I really admire watsi.org, which is non-profit and makes it transparent to transfer all the money raised to the lives in need. It is unnecessary to have a layer between donor and researchers. For social good, it is better to have a non-profit “Microryza” rather than the current for-profit one, because: if Microryza perfroms really well in financing high quality research and generating breakthrough of social good as watsi, which in turn makes them a perfect non-profit to be supported by various foundations (it is likely for research facilities with great contribution for scientific advancement to be funded by billionaires), they grow; if not, they die. And being for-profit decreases research budget and “sometimes caused messy disputes in the unsuccessful ones” (http://ycombinator.com/ycvc.html). Also as they explained, “As long as you are building something that people love, then a corporation status doesn’t change how likely you are to succeed” (http://blog.microryza.com/why-is-microryza-for-profit/). So, why not stop thinking about making money but funding good science?

In conclusion, I am afraid using microfinance to feed non-filtered research proposals may not necessarily make Kickstarter for research.

Hi there,

I saw this comment and the one on TC as well, though a little bit later than expected.

I'd love the chance to chat with you further, since it seems you have many unanswered questions about our process, our mission, our research backgrounds, and our process of transparency. We are working hard to improve the way we message these things, so a chance to answer them for you would doubtless be helpful for future inquiries.

Feel free to drop me an email at denny@microryza.com! I would really love to learn more about what you are thinking.

I think they'll need a re-branding if they want to be successful. Kickstarter is a very easy word to say, spell, and understand. It can also be used as a verb ("Did you kickstart that project?"). Microryza has none of those things. That said, hopefully they can do better than petridish, which seems to have floundered.

I really don't understand differentiating a crowdfunding platform based on specific industry.

This would imply that the platform can create a community of people who are willing to donate over and over again to several relatively similar campaigns. Kickstarter does not work this way.

Kickstarter has been successful not because of their "community of investors/doners" but because they provide people who have an idea with a tool that they can use to reach out to their already existing followers and friends.

The doners of kickstarter campaigns come from the campaigns existing connections.. not from kickstarter itself.

Don't you think that specific industries may need specific tools that Kickstarter doesn't provide?

And the "return" is absolutely different...

I think that these simple things are the sparkle to create the need for separated platforms.

However, many of these alternative croudfunding platforms are not implementing any difference. And there I will support your point of view, there is no need to do that. In fact, it should be better to take advantage of Kickstarter's moment of inertia.

I can't really think of a good example of a tool that is needed to crowdfund a project in a specific industry.. but this is the best argument I've heard and I can imagine something like this actually actually adding some value.

There are many things I'd expect as such tools/customisations... A pair of simple examples:

* Specialised support: the croudfunding platform could offer legal and strategic support in the narrow field they are focusing. I think Kickstarter cannot embrace all industries even if they try.

* Specialised tools and rules: Each platform must have extremely distinct interactions with the backers and product outcomes. In an academic platform (as the one being discussed) I'd expect some tools for scientific divulgation (which must be a mandatory "return" from crowdsourced research projects) and collaboration (which must be extraordinarily stimulated). I think Kickstarter will never consider/establish these rules/tools.

Just me, or are the targets for this obscenely low for doing any 'real' science? $5000 doesn't do much in most labs..

I worry a little about this idea because I think it's a little limited in scope. The kind of scientific ventures that the founder described she had trouble getting funding for (summer undergraduate research) aren't exactly the best examples of the financial needs of most scientific research. Even relatively minor projects can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars per year (and often take longer to get results!). We don't see that sort of money on the already-popular Kickstarter very often, and it's an uphill battle to woo people as much much as one can on Kickstarter.

For very small, 3-month projects? Sure. Maybe. For projects at the same level of academic research? Not now, and it's gonna be tough for it to happen in the future.

If you just took Europe and the US together, you'd have 700 million people. Convince half of them to donate an average of $100 a year for "science", then we could help accelerate scientific progress. The hard part is figuring out how to spend the money effectively.

I've said in the past that it's good to see a variety of groups trying to crack the science crowdfunding issue - it's tough, and differs from the more popular branches of crowdfunding in very important ways.[1]

The future of medicine, however, rests upon success; there's a lot of medical research that just doesn't get funded because the regulatory situation for commercial applications of research is terrible beyond all belief [2], [3]. The incentives there percolate back up the research chain to ensure that few people work on genuinely groundbreaking things, or on things that are intended to do something other than treat late-stage conditions in marginal ways.

Yet this is an era of plummeting costs and soaring capabilities in biotech - so much can be done now with a grad student and a few tens of thousands of dollars that 20 years back would have taken tens of millions and a whole lab, if it could be done at all. In recent years I've been privileged to watch the Longecity community work through the process of crowdfunding small research projects like microglia transplants in mice to evaluate prospects for neurodegenerative treatments [4], to pick one example. That is exactly the sort of thing we'd like to see better frameworks and a broader audience for.

In other words, work taking place in niche fields that are important but underfunded and underappreciated, but nonetheless have strong communities with a willingness to step up and help out.

But as I've said, it's really, really hard. You can't just kickstart a science project in the same way as for games, tools, etc. It doesn't work that way. So I'm hoping that one of these present ventures finds the key.

[1] http://www.fightaging.org/archives/2012/06/you-cant-just-kic...

[2] http://www.fightaging.org/archives/2012/04/the-fda-is-a-dest...

[3] http://www.fightaging.org/archives/2008/05/envisaging-a-worl...

[4] http://www.fightaging.org/archives/2012/05/updates-on-the-lo...

Are contributions tax-deductible?

Contributions will be tax-deductible soon!

We work closely with the development offices at universities to allow the university to provide tax receipts to donors.

Cool! Looks great. Best of luck!

As an investigator myself I see huge promise for this type of program. However, I have a major and immediate concern for this funding mechanism. There is tremendous potential for unethical research to be performed here. Some of the projects currently receiving funding and presented on the web-site are already in potential violation of public safety and patient/animal rights violations. Asking people on the internet to participate in these research efforts is not only unwise, but unethical and at worst, potentially illegal.

For example, the project titled, "Viral Causes of Lung Cancer" featured on the homepage proposes to analyze, "...blood from a nine-year study of over 9,000 men.". As indicated in the background material, "People living with AIDS and transplant patients are at higher risk for lung cancer." Therefore, I am to assume that some of these blood samples may contain infectious HIV. At this point, this is only an assumption, but how am I to know that the research is being processed under required biosafety conditions? Equally as important, how am I to know that the patient data has been protected and adequately de-identified? I can make these assumptions, but when dealing with disease control and patient rights assumptions are not a place where I want to dedicate my money.

What happens if the investigator accidentally inoculates himself with patient blood via a contaminated needle? The entire proposal is predicated with the idea that the samples are laden with virus, so unless the investigator is wrong, there are at least some infectious samples. Similarly, what controls are in place to prevent the association of patient data with viral load and cancer status amongst other things?

How is Microryza going to prevent the investor from law suits in the case of a biosafety incident or patient/animal rights violation?

Regulatory committees are a blessing and a curse to all researchers. They are a curse in that it means a lot of paperwork, boring courses and regulatory meetings. But they are there for a reason, specifically to protect the individuals working on the research, the patients from which samples are obtained (when applicable) and the funding agencies supporting the work. Many regulatory requirement are put into place only following an accident or tragedy. I hope that Microryza is able to respond to this proactively instead of retroactively after someone has been harmed.

Perhaps this has all been thought out by the founders, but I was unable to find any information on the web-site about any of these issues. My general assumption is that when funding is provided to an investigator at a University that it will all be handled under the universities regulations. However, all funding agencies have a set of rules that must be complied to in order to protect themselves from these exact scenarios. And I can't even begin to imagine a mechanism to properly monitor 'citizen science' projects. These will largely not involve patient data, but may involve topics such as environmental monitoring of plants and animals. These also have their own issues of regulatory concern for the welfare of the environment and animals under study.

So far the people being funded look like they all have jobs at universities in the U.S., in which case, wouldn't the normal IRB process cover these concerns? Typically IRB oversight applies regardless of funding source; even unfunded research has to be IRB-vetted, so I would assume a researcher receiving Microryza funds would also need to ask their IRB to approve the project before it got to the stage of human or animal subjects.

Would be different if they funded independent research organizations which don't already have internal ethics processes in place, but it seems so far they aren't.

Hi, Denny here from Microryza. Excuse my HN pseudonym but I wanted to respond with regards to research regulations.

We are assembling a science advisory board to help us define several of the checkpoints you brought up, particularly when it comes to ethics and safety. Working with universities does help us to deal with this now, but we do strive to have a rigorous system that we can rely on, regardless if you might be an institutional or independent researcher.

We are also working on making the messaging about these topics on the site better in the coming weeks. I would love the chance to continue this conversation, shoot me an email at founders@microryza.com. We find these sorts of conversations very useful and important!

The poster above indicates that institutional IRB approval would cover things, but that can actually be a bit tricky depending on the regulatory board and the specific situation. For example, I am a member of our IBC (Institutional Biosafety Committee). We approve all scientific research done on our campus for safety reasons (chemical and biological). However, the legalities behind this are a bit unclear. The NIH and institution require this board, and you can't do research if you don't get our approval, but what is unclear is what would happen if something unfortunate occurred? Right now, we have legal backing from the institution which should cover all scenarios, but in speaking with said legal council, we are actually all personally liable for consequences from approvals we sign off on. Board members at other institutions have been personally sued, so there is precedent for this happening. However, with the backing of the University legal team it is much easier to swallow. It is difficult to see how Microryza will be able to replicate this without documenting full legal support.

I am not trying to be a Debbie Downer here, and I really like the concept. For most of your research topics this will not be an issue, but I would hate to hear how the entire organization got burned to the ground over some regulatory law suit, and I certainly would not like to see someone get harmed. Particularly since all of the hard work has already been done for you by other organizations. You just need to take advantage of it.

If handled correctly, this could actually be a marketing point for your organization over others. You would need to balance the headache of implementing these regulations against the real and perceived benefits, but I think folks would be much more confident in the process from an investigator or potential investor perspective if you implemented a transparent but rigorous system.

>You would need to balance the headache of implementing these regulations against the real and perceived benefits

This is why we can do this and get by because we are still a startup. :)

But yes you are absolutely right. We are currently pursuing more formal legal agreements with our partner schools, and this was a proactive move on our part when a lot of folks questioned the need for it. We belive strongly in integrity of science, it just won't be simple to shoehorn this new process into the machine that is big science today.

Petridish appears to have no active projects and their blog hasn't been updated since August 2012. I'm assuming they are dead.

I'm a little unclear on the concept here, because this doesn't sound at all like Kickstarter.

Microryza sound like nothing more than middlefolk between my research and funding sources. They "vet"? And their domain knowledge in my field is...?

Am I missing the idea? Why do I want another layer between me and a funding source?

Hi! The idea is that we don't do much vetting. The only criteria that we evaluate on are:

1) Is the researcher who he says he is? 2) Is it actually research? 3) Is the researcher capable of meeting the research aims? e.g. is it a matter of expertise, equipment time, etc?

Beyond that, we just work with universities to ensure that the standard research guidelines are in place (ethics, practices).

In the future, we have ambitious ideas of opening up this process into a more democratic and transparent flow.

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