Signs of Progress in Crowdsourced Science Funding
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If you've been reading Fight Aging! for a while, you'll recall that I've discussed organized crowdsourcing of funding of life science research - and longevity science in particular - for a few years now. This is a concept whose time has come: the Internet is providing great transparency and insight into all fields of endeavor, the cost of biotechnology has fallen rapidly to the point at which graduate students and a few tens of thousands of dollars can accomplish meaningful novel research, and crowdsourcing is achieving critical mass in other markets.

So we have ventures like Kickstarter, which is making a name for itself in art, publishing, and manufacturing projects. That is an example of a successful marketplace, where workers and funders can come together to raise sums comparable to pre-angel investments in start up companies - but on their own terms, and usually far better terms.

If you can raise money for books, art projects, and widgets, why not for discrete life science research projects with determined goals? The LongeCity (previously the Immortality Institute) crowd have been trying this for some years, with a great deal of success considering the limited audience of this community in comparison to the audience available through Kickstarter. It is sad but true that far more people are brought to a state of excitedly opening their wallets for the development of an iPhone widget than for any sort of biotechnology project, even one that will contribute to the reversal of aging.

But regardless, the groundwork is laid - this is the time for growth in crowdsourced funding. For the scientific community, the remaining piece of the puzzle at this time would seem to be a viable first marketplace, some Kickstarter-for-science that captures an audience and replicates the success of Kickstarter in this field. Once that is done a single time, then the idea will be accepted by the public and many such ventures can blossom.

Today, I see a fairly professional offering is put forward as a contender: Petridish:

Petridish lets you fund promising research projects and join first hand in new discoveries. World famous researchers post projects and expeditions that need your help to get off the ground. Each project has a minimum threshold it must hit in pledges, or it will not be funded. Backers in successful projects join the team and get insider rewards such as: Early access to news about progress and findings, souvenirs from the field, acknowledgements in journals, naming rights for new discoveries, or the ability to join an expedition in person.

Crowdsourced funding is a tremendously powerful tool for minority research fields - such as the rejuvenation biotechnology of the SENS Foundation. This is true for exactly the same reasons that make it a powerful tool for indie publishers and other entities largely removed from the traditional funding sources in their industry. In fact, the history of the SENS Foundation and Methuselah Foundation has been one long crowdsourced funding effort, launched by the early interest of the transhumanist community and carried onward by a broader community of people who value longer lives enough to do something about it.

What an organization like Petridish can bring to the table, if successful, is a larger audience and a formalism of the crowdsourced funding process that enables it to proceed much more smoothly - and more successfully. There are economies of scale that emerge quite quickly if you want to break down your fundraising into ten small programs rather than one big one, but it takes something like a Petridish or a Kickstarter to make this work well.

I believe that the SENS Foundation folk should contact the Petridish folk and set something up: there is no shortage of discrete, interesting projects that the Foundation would like to undertake, and I think this would be an excellent test of the waters. This is the future of small to mid-sized project funding, both in the sciences and elsewhere: if you want enthusiastic, knowledgeable supporters, then you have to get them more involved in the nuts and bolts of your work - in the small victories and accomplishments that are the foundation of the bigger picture. This is the best way to do that.

Comments

Thanks for this great article! I couldn't agree with you more that the time for crowdfunding in science has certainly arrived.

If any of the readers of this post (including the SENS Foundation) are interested in working with us on a crowdfunding campaign, they should email us at projects@petridish.org

Posted by: Matt Salzberg at March 9, 2012 8:49 AM

Excellent, thanks for stepping forward Matt!

Posted by: JC at March 9, 2012 3:22 PM

Great article on crowdsourcing and how it may help aging research. I have thought the same since I heard about kickstarter.com. I've even searched kickstarter to see if they had any aging research related projects, they did not of course.

What I've advocated for some time is the need to "divide" up the great big problem of solving aging. SENS has done that, in a way, by defining the 7 or so causes of aging and to begin research on some of the more ignored ones. I still think we need to continue to "subdivide" the problem of aging far further - to dive into each of the 7 causes of aging and determine what needs to be figured out, or technologies or hardware one would need - to truly tackle this problem. The questions could be turned into experiments that may be successfully funded through petridish.com. Other things that hold back progress in the fight against aging should also be identified and compartmentalized. For instance, the issue of overbearing FDA regulation, or the lack of the FDA calling aging a disease should be identified and solutions should be considered and worked on. Perhaps the answer for some FDA issues is to get access to a lab offshore. Or perhaps a project on a site like petridish.com could be to obtain funding to lobby Congress on the issue of getting aging to be labeled a disease. Perhaps this last idea sounds crazy, but that might be the way forward on this particular issue.

Finally, what I would really like to see is something of an "Aging Wiki" or some sort of knowledge database. This would first contain the structure of the aging process and what the best science available (e.g. SENS in most cases) has to say about how to tackle the aging process. The database would have levels where one could drill down to learn more about the components of the 7 causes of aging and the theories on how to combat them. Further drilling down would reveal furhter sub-levels of the cause of aging and show the various questions that remain unanswered, perhaps some of the known research projects out there, and results or updates from clinical trials, if any. The remaining unanswered questions in this wiki would have links to the related petridish.org project page where one could donate to the answering of that unknown question. Over time this wiki/knowledge base would be updated with the results of the petridish projects and results from other sources. The result? Something like a grand respository the knowledge we've accumulated to date on aging and the road map to tackling this complex problem. Would it be perfect? No, but it would enable many more people to "get their arms around" the problem of curing aging and could drive more crowdsourcing of funds.

Posted by: Dan C at March 12, 2012 9:51 AM
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