Encouraging Transparency in Life Science Fundraising

Transparency in fundraising and early stage research is the wave of the future. Young biotechnologists - and especially those in the open source biology movement - should be out there blogging their ongoing work, itemizing their costs, and engaging in microscale fundraising.

These days many people could start a company if they wanted to. Direct costs (not opportunity costs, founder labor, etc) for the sort of low capital investment entrepreneurial ventures that catch all the attention are in the $5-20,000 range. That is roughly the amount of money taken to answer the question "is this worth chasing any further?"

Similarly, many people could fund the answer to an important piece of scientific research if they so desired. Biotechnology is cheap nowadays, and only getting cheaper as time advances. The range of $5-20,000 will buy you a postgrad who knows what he's doing and lab access for long enough to answer an interesting question or produce a proof of principle - roughly the same as "is this worth chasing any further?" Can you use lasers to destroy lipofuscin inside cells, for example, or indeed many of the projects approved for the SENS Foundation undergraduate academic initiative.

The business models for running this sort of low-cost production of results in other fields of endeavor, such as writing or software development, are becoming well established. But scientific research lags, for all that grassroots groups are pointing the way forward:

the longevity science grassroots centered at the Immortality Institute have successfully raised $8,000 to fund research into laser ablation of lipofuscin. Those funds will be matched up to $16,000 at the SENS Foundation and put towards work on a method of eliminating one form of damaging metabolic byproducts that build up with age

Livly is a research collaboration that is taking steps in the right direction. It is a non-profit development of granulocyte cancer therapies set in Silicon Valley, and which comports itself somewhat like a web technology startup. Take a look at their website - you'll see what I mean if you're familiar with the California startup attitude to engagement and information. If the Livly founders can pull that off - openness, transparency, endeavor, and success in a life science field - it will be a promising sign of what is to come.

At some point, the culture of the scientific establishment that sets a wall between the public and fundraising activities has to change. As ever more areas of biotechnology become so cheap that anyone with a will and a goal can pitch in, the priesthood of science must adapt or wither away. Researchers who fail to issue regular updates on what they are doing will be out-evolved by a new breed of folk who keep their funding circle close, engaged, and up to date. Grant writing will fade in importance in comparison to revenue models tried and tested in other field: subscriptions for access, ransoms, support through early commercialization of side-products, and a hundred other widely used methods of fundraising or generating revenue. This is the future of biotechnology and applied life science research - less of the ivory tower and much more from entities that look just like associations, companies, and non-profits.

I believe in supporting those folk who are heading in the right direction. For all that the future I've described above is inevitable, it's late in arriving. Those who are leading the way should be encouraged and helped. So that said, go and take a look at Livly's fundraising and community support page: you'll see that they're itemizing their laboratory wishlist and the costs of equipment. You might read the h+ magazine article on Livly to see how they're keeping costs down and hacking together their own biotech apparatus. Itemizing costs in this way and encouraging supporters to step in is a small step towards what I would regard as meaningful levels of transparency, but it is something I'd like to see more of from all of the research-related organizations I support. Both Methuselah Foundation and SENS Foundation could learn from this, for example.

So I donated $600 to Livly today, and suggested they to use it to hack together a spectrophotometer for their synthetic biology lab. I encourage you pick an item and do the same. As for Livly, I encourage the founders to expand their efforts in generating transparency in both their work and their fundraising.


Grant writing will fade in importance in comparison to revenue models tried and tested in other field

I disagree. Apart from the intended recipients of the grant proposal (fund-dispensing organization vs. the general public), there is no discernible difference between "grant writing" and a "ransom model". The ImmInst fundraiser on laser ablation of lipofuscin was a de facto grant proposal.

As for "subscriptions for access", we're doing it already, and the results are no good: open-access publishing (with an optional embargo period for paid subscribers) is far more transparent and its potential impact on the general public is far higher.

Commercializing side-products is good, although these commercial ventures tend to rely on patents and other IP restrictions which are at odds with academic openness.

Posted by: guest at February 13th, 2010 7:32 AM

I gave a more modest 20 bucks to Livly just now. I read about granulocyte as a prospective approach to cancer about a year ago and found it interesting and assumed I would hear more about it in fifteen years or so. Is it possible that companies like Livly are waging asymetrical warfare in the war on cancer?

Posted by: TomNJ at February 13th, 2010 1:26 PM
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