One of the main reasons that we managed to collectively raise $150,000 at the end of 2014 to assist in expanding ongoing SENS Research Foundation's projects is that the whole process of organization started much earlier in the year, somewhere around June in fact. Preparation is everything. It gave people time to think about how they could help, and many people in fact put in a lot of time and money to make it a success. Thank you all.
At this point in the evolution of rejuvenation biotechnology after the SENS model of damage repair raising money is clearly one of the best things we can be doing. Almost all of the present hurdles involve moving early stage research along to the point of prototypes, or even just close enough for biotech entrepreneurs to pick up the ball. That is a long road for some items, such as telomerase and ALT interdiction, but other areas are much closer to realization, and could get to that point given even modest sustained funding. Early stage research is very cheap in comparison to later development in medicine. In fact we can see this happening at the moment for senescent cell ablation with the recent news that a company has been founded to try one possible approach. Maybe it will work out, maybe it won't, but that isn't the point. The point is that all the various biotechnologies needed for a range of different attempts at senescent cell ablation therapies are within striking distance, and this is the first venture of a number that will arise in the next few years, I'd predict.
So what should the Fight Aging! community do this year? There are a few options to consider, along with all of those I haven't yet thought of.
Stick With What Works, Increase the Goal
We ran an impromptu matching fund to raise $60,000 for the SENS Research Foundation in 2013, a more planned matching fundraiser last year that raised $150,000, and we could attempt pretty much the same thing this year for some larger amount. The fundraiser runs via this site, donations are made to the SENS Research Foundation directly, we start by gathering up a matching fund, and the size of that fund determines the goal for later grassroots fundraising. I'll note that at least $45,000 of last year's fund came from one-time sources, so while there are more doors to knock on this year it is still a scary amount of money to raise from the community when you are the one doing the asking. Equally, half-way through the 2014 fundraiser I was fairly convinced I was overreaching and yet that succeeded in the end. So it makes sense to keep raising the target until you fail, as how else can you tell how much the community is willing to provide to help advance research efforts?
Switch to a Science Crowdfunding Platform
Is there a science crowdfunding platform that will give us more than it takes from us? By this I'm skipping over the intangibles to mean that the platform results in more donations than their fee. This could be because of additional audience reach, payment options that are easier for some people than the current PayPal implementation used by the SENS Research Foundation, or some other combination of factors. In the case of Experiment the additional fee is going to be 5% or so, so for a $150,000 project you need to find another $7,500 in donations to cover that.
If I was going to take this approach my contribution would probably be to cover that cost and then help with the materials needed. The real downside of the crowdfunding platform approach is that it is more of a load on the SENS Research Foundation in terms of producing materials: video, glossy PDFs, that sort of thing. Most crowdfunding sites are also going to require some sort of a project specific focus for the fundraiser, and sorting this out and tracking funds later and reporting back on it is a further pain for the Foundation staff. Money always comes with strings, but we want to be helping, not making things harder.
Over the past couple of years my reluctance to engage with science crowdfunding sites has come down to the fact that they really don't have much of a halo of interested users in the same way that Kickstarter does. If you put up a project on Kickstarter you are getting a new audience that wouldn't have otherwise noticed you, but I'm really not seeing that effect in science crowdfunding yet. It is possible that we never will, and that this is an unreasonable expectation. It is also the case that better payment systems don't necessary have a beneficial effect given that the weight of donations to research leans heavily towards a demographic of a few people writing a $10,000 check and putting it in the mail rather than a hundred people each sending $100 via PayPal or credit card.
That said I remain optimistic about the field of crowdfunding for research in the mid- to long-term, whether as a platform for better interacting with your community of supporters or as a way to reach out and expand it. I just question whether it is actually better at this point in comparison to the ad-hoc system we've assembled here in the past few years.
Raise for a Specific Research Project
I should start this with the caveat that you should never approach someone to say "I'm going to give you some money, but it will come with annoying reporting requirements, and you'll have to do more tracking internally as well, oh and you'll have to chase up the people you're funding with it to make them do more of this as well." Past fundraising for the SENS Research Foundation has largely been project agnostic for the reasons given above: we trust them to put the money to where it will do the most good based on the detailed annual reports they publish. If we had all of the relevant connections and life science knowledge, we could spend the money ourselves just as well, but we do not. Middlemen can have an important role in some circumstances.
Would it make a difference to our fundraising if we did lay out a specific project, however? Pick something on the SENS wish list roadmap for 2016 that a rough project plan estimates to cost $200,000 and see how far we get towards making it happen. This has many of the downsides noted above for the crowdfunding approach in that it puts the onus on the SENS Research Foundation and the scientists involved to assist in the production of video and other materials. I have to think that this compares favorably with writing grant proposals, but equally it has in the past proven to be blood from a stone to extract this sort of stuff from researchers, especially updates on ongoing research after the fact.
There is also the question of whether people really are more interested in funding specific projects versus funding a cause or a team. There is a view of the future that sees a large disintermediation of the present review and funding function of research non-profits, drive by an increasingly informed public bypassing these gatekeepers to participate in a science crowdfunding industry. Equally this may be unrealistic: people have limited time and attention, and the reason these gatekeepers exist is because supporters of the cause are willing to pay someone else to take the time to figure out how to make things move faster.
Move Towards Assembling a Tithing Group
This would be more of a radical change, a move away from grassroots fundraising and towards cultivating a smaller group of donors. Much of the success of last year's fundraising came from having a group of people willing to pitch in $5,000 to $20,000 each. It occurs to me that the community of people of unexceptional wealth capable and willing to do this year after year is not well explored at this time. Could Fight Aging! serve as the starting point to build up a group of 100 or so people donating $10,000 apiece to fund research over the next five years? This strikes me as enormously ambitious, especially for someone as little involved in outreach as myself, and would result in big changes to this site and its focus, but the fact that there were a number of people making that leap last year gives me an inkling that this might just be made to work.
Skip to the Chase, Seed Fund a Company
If the Methuselah Foundation can seed fund a new company working on an approach to the SENS-related tactic of senescent cell ablation, why can't we? Seed rounds can be in the low few hundred thousand dollar range for many types of biotechnology nowadays. US law changed not so long ago such that it would be perfectly legal for any group of us to crowdfund a startup's seed round and hand over the equity to the SENS Research Foundation for safekeeping: we'd still be donating to the SENS Research Foundation, but in a more speculative and long-term way.
Ah, but the caveats. Firstly this is highly risky in the same way that funding research is highly risky, but much more so. A majority of the best-looking startup companies vanish into the earth, never to be seen again, and you'll need to go digging to even get some sort of documentation or a published paper out of the effort. Secondly the reason that the Methuselah Foundation can do this is that the organization is headed by a very well connected entrepreneur who has been embedded in the biotech community for some years now: the only reliable way to have the option to fund a seed round at a reasonably price is to know the people who are founding the company in question.
Lastly there is an important element of timing that makes this somewhat challenging. If a company raises a seed round of $100,000 (say), then its founders are looking to raise a few million a few months later, or abandon the effort, one or the other. In biotechnology this usually means the seed round is to get you past some version of "does this actually work?" To close the gap between promising research papers and reality, as it were. Crowdfunding is much less rapid, however, or at least around here it is. Last year's process ran from June to December with a short break in the middle to wonder what I'd got myself into. If you tried to sync that up with the breakneck speed of an early stage company then by the time you finished up, you'd find that they are off into the land of raising millions, and thus you are irrelevant, and if they are not then that's probably a compelling sign not to throw good money after bad.
Lastly there just aren't that many people in the position to start companies to do SENS-relevant things at the moment. I was pleasantly surprised to see one turning up now for senescent cell ablation, a most unexpected outcome this year. If wagering, I'd put a little money on the next set of SENS-related startups to emerge from the folk working on glucosepane breakers, assuming they make good progress on their tooling. In the years ahead there will be ever more opportunities to fund SENS-relevant startup biotech companies, but I suspect the process of lining this all up will be something that has to be accomplished via well connected intermediaries and also tend to happen too rapidly when a possible deal finally arises. A better model is to have someone with the $100,000 to spend right now and run the fundraiser to return that money. But that setup doesn't exactly inspire people to donate.
This meandering post by no means covers every possibility that has occurred to me. Suggestions are always taken. Success in past years was largely a matter of people taking it into their own hands to do something to help, after all.