Science isn’t a club. It’s a cultural activity, and it should be participatory. But if it were a club, these people would have made it a whole lot cooler.
“We are the kids who got in trouble in chemistry lab for setting the things on fire that we were not supposed to set on fire.”
That’s the official description of the people who made Experiment, a crowdfunding platform for scientific research. Crowdfunding and crowdsourcing have been a game-changer for many industries, including finance, humanitarian relief, startups, entertainment, and even the military, and the concept has has come to work some network magic on science. Science funding has traditionally been controlled by a few institutions and focused on their objectives. The network age, though, lends us the opportunity to widen those pathways to a greater number of scientists and a greater diversity of ideas.
On Experiment, you’ll find active research in rare diseases, dinosaur excavation, vitamins and eyesight, zombie ants (our favorite), and the scientific rigor you might expect from a couple of scientists who developed anthrax medicine for the Army.
Science tells us that innovation is path-dependent, as we learned from our interview with AI researchers Kenneth Stanley and Jeff Clune. A network that includes openness and diversity makes discovery and innovation more likely.
In The Competitive Advantage of Nations, Michael Porter introduces the idea of strategic clusters. (You know — Italy makes good shoes, the Valley spawns startups, etc). The gist of it is that innovation doesn’t just come from companies; it comes from ecosystems. The ‘stepping stones’ to the next big thing arise from the surrounding network, often without a direct relationship to an objective. Experiment.com makes it possible for the stepping stones to the next big scientific breakthrough to come from untraditional channels.
We asked Experiment co-founder Cindy Wu about the path that led her and Denny Luan, undergrads at the time, to launch this curious startup experiment in 2012.
It was an ordinary summer for Cindy and Denny, resequencing proteins to fight anthrax…
d4e: How did you get the idea for Experiment?
Cindy Wu: Denny and I were last-year undergrads, and with a group of other students we had just designed an anthrax therapeutic for the Army. We used a crowdsourced video game where you can put up these proteins online and play this game to alter different parts to see if they come up with a new drug or probiotic. We made 87 different versions of that protein that summer. One was able to decapsulate the protective coat on the outside of anthrax bacteria.
The reason anthrax is so lethal is that when it enters your body, your body misidentifies it as safe, and so it spreads. But if you’re able to take off this protective coating, your body will recognize it as foreign and immune system will fight back.
We presented that research at the largest synthetic biology conference at MIT, and published the research, and the Army’s now doing follow up work on it. What we found is the same drug we created could also be used as an antibiotic for more generic bacterial infections in the hospital.
We needed like $5,000 to get that project started because we had all the techniques, we just needed to buy a few reagents. When I asked my professor where she could get grant money he just said, “Look Cindy. You’re an undergrad. You don’t have a PhD. The system just doesn’t fund people like you.”
So that’s when we decided we were just going to solve our own problem. If the government didn’t want to fund young scientists just because they didn’t have a PhD, then maybe the Internet could. We took a lot of inspiration from Kiva.org, which is a microfinance site. Denny had the idea of building a Kiva for science. We didn’t really know what that looked like, so we decided to just try it. We got nine of our professor and grad student friends to put up projects on the site. We funded six out of those first nine and never looked back.
d4e: What was the response from the scientific community?
CW: The majority of our users are professors and grad students at academic institutions, although we do allow anyone that has a research idea to propose projects on the site.
Over time, academics have become really interested because they think it’s a good way to fund really early stage research.
d4e: What types of experiments have you seen that wouldn’t be likely or possible elsewhere?
CW: There was a project where researchers tried to alter their vision to be able to see infrared. They haven’t published the results yet, but that’s something that probably wouldn’t get funded in the traditional realm.
There’s one experiment that actually uses the crowd to collect the data. He has ordered corn that is GMO and non-GMO. It looks identical. He’s sent it to all his backers, and his backers put it in their yard and see which corn the squirrels or other animals prefer. That part of crowdfunding and crowdsourcing is unique.
d4e: Is it usually research scientists carrying out the actual experiments?
CW: Most of the people proposing research on the platform are the ones actually carrying out the experiments, but we do have projects where people went through the literature and saw something they wanted to test, and then partnered with an institution to do the research.
For example there was a husband and wife team, and the wife found out she had a rare prion disease. Very little is known about prion diseases, but they found a compound that they wanted to test. Once they funded their research on Experiment, they applied to grad school, and now they’re both PhD students at Harvard Medical working on prion research.
One of the projects that’s raised the most on Experiment is run by a dad who found out both of his daughters had Batten disease. He did a literature search and found that there was one doctor in New Zealand who had treated the same type of Batten in sheep, so he’s replicating that study and using the rest of the funding for other types of gene therapy. I think we’re going to see a lot more research in rare diseases. This happened even before crowdfunding, where parents were take research into their own hands, and often they become experts in the field because they’ve read every paper that’s been published and talked to all the scientists.
d4e: What unmet demand is being served by Experiment?
CW: The most important thing that this allows scientists and avenue where they have full control over whether or not their research starts. In the traditional grant system you apply for a grant and maybe wait for a whole year before you figure out whether you get funding. With crowdfunding and Experiment, scientists put the idea up, get the money within 30 days and try it out, and if it works, run another campaign or use the preliminary data to go after a larger government grant. That was never the case in the past. The closest scenario we had before would be a faculty member going to a department head for some startup funds from the discretionary budget for some early stage research, but because research funding is drying up, it seems like those opportunities are dwindling.
d4e: What makes a successful Experiment?
CW: The most important thing is for the project to be well defined and for the researcher or whoever’s running the campaign to be very committed to the campaign, and to engage the community after it has run.
d4e: What’s new?
CW: The Journal of Results. People always wonder, once you fund a project, what do you get? The Journal was the first time we aggregated results from finished projects. That closes the loop on what is the reward on giving to science.
d4e: What are your goals for the network you’ve designed?
CW: We want to create a world where anyone can be a scientist. We want to be the first place people go when they have an idea for a scientific project, where they can share the results with everyone who has access to the internet.
I think the majority of the research will be executed by people in the public. And it should be, but it hasn’t been that way because to get funded by mainstream sources you have to have a PhD. Our network gives more access to more people (everywhere, including underserved communities and countries) who have the ideas that will push science forward.
So far, Experiment.com has rounded up over $5 million in funding for research and 19,000 backers, resulting in 20 published papers funded.
You never know where an idea will come from. No one knows this better than designers and our kindred spirits, scientists and inventors. The greatest leaps forward emerge as much from a network as from the genius of a single mind. Sometimes, the right objective for designing a network is discovery itself.