Elizabeth Iorns is on a mission to kill mutant sperm. She hopes to prevent transmission of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer by eradicating sperm carrying a specific gene mutation. Frustrated with traditional grants and private funders, Iorns raised $10,242 from 53 individuals through crowd-funding on Microryza. In return, she promised to share the chronicles of her research with her online supporters.

With diminishing government funding for science, researchers are turning to websites such as RocketHub, GeekFunder, and Microryza that allow scientists to raise funds in small increments from many individuals through a process known as crowd-funding. Unlike many crowd-funding campaigns where, say, an indie band promises each investor a copy of its new CD, science funding offers few tangible rewards to donors. Instead, donors on sites like Microryza are updated on research progress and researchers promise to publish their findings in open-access journals.

Cindy Wu and Denny Luan co-founded Microryza in Seattle after Wu had difficulty getting funds to support her undergraduate research project. “There are people who want to see research happen,” Wu explains. “We connect donors directly to scientists.” Microryza has helped raise over $200,000 for research since the site’s inception 14 months ago, according to Wu. The site—named for a symbiotic fungus that lives on plant roots—models itself as a host where would-be science patrons and unfunded researchers can co-exist. Microryza takes an 8% commission for its services. To prevent fraud, Microryza screens all proposals, checking the scientific credentials and affiliations of all fund seekers to insure that they have the training and the experience to complete the proposed project.

Iorns will use the $10,242 she raised on the site to research a noninvasive way to prevent transmission of mutated BRCA, a gene responsible for hereditary breast and ovarian cancers. As she does not have a lab, she plans to contract out experiments through Science Exchange, a marketplace for science services she helped create. Working independently of a research institution, Iorns concedes that, “It would be difficult to be funded through peer review,” the group assessment process used by agencies such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to determine grant funding.

Not all crowd-fund seekers come away with success stories like Iorns’s. She believes she achieved her crowd funding goal because her project is one that “a group of people [with BRCA mutations] care about.” Iorns also sees her independence from an academic institution as an advantage in crowd-funding.”You have to engage your funders. The academic research world gets grants and years later publishes a paper behind a pay-wall,” says Iorns.

Yet even researchers with traditional institutional ties are turning to crowd-funding to get pet projects off the ground. Manuela Martins-Green, Professor of Cell Biology at the University of California, Riverside, is seeking $20,000 for a research project through Microryza. Martins-Green and colleagues would like to begin work on a screening microarray that could identify genes involved in inhibiting wound healing. The project’s goal is to develop a diagnostic tool to help clinicians determine how best to treat a patient’s non-healing wound. The Martins-Green lab does receive funding from the NIH, but she fears that her screening microarray would be considered a “fishing expedition” by NIH peer reviewers. “I am certain that if I go to NIH to get funding for my microarray, they will not fund me,” says Martins-Green. Compared to NIH grants, crowd-funding raises smaller sums but allows for research with high risks and potentially high rewards.

One possible pitfall of crowd-funding science is that the system could reward the best science communicators rather than the best scientists. However, Microryza tries to avoid the issue by helping each fund-seeker communicate the science behind the proposal as clearly as possible. Martins-Green credits the Microryza team with “helping me with the language and website organization.”

Like other crowd-sourcing websites, Microryza has an all-or-nothing threshold. If Martins-Green does not raise $20,000 in the next 75 days, she will not receive any funds for the project. The would-be donors are not charged for their pledges unless the threshold is reached. Wu explains, “We want researchers to accomplish their concrete goals… a scientist can’t buy half of a piece of equipment.” Martins-Green is optimistic, “Even if I don’t get funded, working on this project with Microryza has been a lot of fun.”

Christina Szalinski

Christina Szalinski is a science writer with a PhD in Cell Biology from the University of Pittsburgh.

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