Every Thursday at 5 p.m., diabetes specialist Jennifer Dyer would send customized cell phone messages to three of her teenaged patients. “This is Dr. Dyer,” one text message read. “How is prom dress shopping going? How are you doing with checking your blood sugars?” After a few months, Dyer noticed that these simple reminders seemed to yield real improvements in her patients' health outcomes: their long-term blood glucose levels dropped from 11% to 9%, on average—an encouraging step toward a healthy level of less than 7%.
The finding inspired the young doctor to change her career course. Last summer, Dyer closed her practice at the Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and devoted herself full time to developing a smartphone app for diabetes management that she dubbed EndoGoddess.
Unable to secure funding for a larger clinical trial through the conventional grant system, Dyer approached Kickstarter, the trendy Web platform that allows individuals to raise money for all sorts of creative projects, from documentary films to new clothing designs. The EndoGoddess trial, however, was rejected by the powers that be at Kickstarter. The site has a long list of prohibited content, including products related to health, personal care or medicine.
In April, Dyer turned to Medstartr, one of several new crowd-funding websites tailored for scientific research and the healthcare sector. Medstartr, which debuted online in July, focuses on helping biomedical start-ups solicit small donations from everyday citizens. Meanwhile, Petridish, which came online 6 March, and iAMscientist, on 31 July, are helping scientists affiliated with academic or nonprofit institutions raise money for their research.
As crowd funding enthusiasts are quick to point out, projects financed in this way don't need the approval of fickle grant reviewers at government agencies, private foundations or venture capitalists. Instead, they're at the mercy of the masses. “Here we have a new way to show what people actually want, to drive adoption by doctors or institutions or patients,” says Alex Fair, chief executive of New York–based MedStartr. (MedStartr, like all these new companies, charges a 5% service fee for any fully funded project; donors are not being charged for any project that doesn't meet its financial goal by the predetermined deadline.)
It's too early to tell how big of an influence crowd funding will have on biomedicine. As Nature Medicine went to press, Medstartr had posted fewer than 20 projects—including one for its continued operation—but was receiving more than 3,000 page views per day. Petridish's website had listed around 40 projects since its launch, including a $5,000 proposal from researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, to help develop a dengue vaccine that targets the mosquito vector's saliva protein, while iAMscientist's had listed just nine.
Scientists as celebrities
Crowd funding may not provide the heft of a multimillion-dollar R01 grant from the US National Institutes of Health, but it does break the stifling 12- to 18-month grant cycle, according to Borya Shakhnovich, a bioinformatics researcher who left a postdoc at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts to found iAMscientist, which is headquartered in the Boston area. “We're geared toward younger researchers with new ideas that could be done in two to three months,” he says. And crowd funding offers more than just money. “What's even more important is that you're creating a fan base for your research,” Shakhnovich adds.
IAMscientist advises scientists to create compelling pitch videos for a lay audience. The site also crafts donation rewards that treat scientists like celebrities. If you donate $30 to Stephen Glatt's study of biomarkers for psychiatric symptoms, for example, he'll send you a signed copy of any research paper that comes from it. Thirty-five dollars gets you a lab t-shirt, and $100 an invitation to a lab meeting. “It's great if they're trying to create a cult of personality around scientists,” says Glatt, a psychologist at SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York. At press time, Glatt had collected $890 from ten people toward his $25,000 goal.
The dengue vaccine project posted on Petridish didn't reach its $5,000 target by last month's deadline. But the researcher who posted it, Yale postdoc M. J. Conway, is more interested in the networking opportunities provided by crowd funding, anyway. “At this stage, I want to let everyone know about the research that I'm doing, so I can get picked up in a few years and run my own research program,” he says.
For the entrepreneurs, crowd-funding can also bring about new corporate clients. Avado, an app that allows patients to communicate with their doctors, posted a $5,000 project on Medstartr to integrate its software with other devices such as exercise monitors and glucose meters. The project exceeded its goal, raising in excess of $7,500 from more than 80 supporters. One of its backers is Clinical Research Centers of America, a team of liver disease researchers in Salt Lake City that plans to use Avado for managing its data collection.
“That alone made it worthwhile,” says Avado co-founder and chief executive Dave Chase. The Medstartr post has also led to offline discussions with possible corporate partners, including a mobile app developer and a software company, Chase adds.
Medstartr and iAMscientist are thinking about eventually branching out into so-called 'equity crowd funding', in which individuals buy ownership in a company. The JOBS Act, signed into law in April by President Barack Obama, made this legal in the US. But the bill, short for 'Jumpstart Our Business Startups', stipulated a maximum investment of $1 million per year and gave the US Securities and Exchange Commission until the end of the year to determine additional specific regulations. “I've got a feeling [the regulators] are going to nail this big time, and it won't be as great as people think,” says Scott Jordan, a life sciences business consultant in Chicago. In the biotech world, he adds, $1 million doesn't go very far, and venture capitalists will be loath to invest in a company that does crowd funding first.
As for the EndoGoddess clinical trial, Dyer raised $1,285 from 32 people in the project's first month on Medstartr. But, at press time, she was nowhere near her goal of reaching $25,000 by 1 September. Still, Dyer, like many of the early adopters on these sites, stays motivated by every new donation. “It's really exciting from a patient-advocacy point of view,” she says. “I think the public has a lot to say about what they'd like.”
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Hughes, V. Strapped for funding, medical researchers pitch to the crowd. Nat Med 18, 1307 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/nm0912-1307
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