August 2011

Angel investment from the masses

A new type of funding agency taps everyday donors to fund pilot science projects. 

During the snowy winter of 2008, David Vitrant, then a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, felt the chilling effects not only of the dead cold but also of the funding shortage facing young researchers. "There was very little government or foundation money available to our generation," recalled Vitrant. Frustrated by the lack of funding, Vitrant took matters into his own hands. Inspired by the success of microfinance for small businesses and the rural poor in developing countries, he worked together with his college friend Mark Friedgan to create FundScience, a new funding scheme geared toward young scientists, to raise money and distribute small grants.

Vitrant is not alone. David Fries, a marine engineer at the University of South Florida and a co-founder of SciFlies, another science microfinancing organization launched in 2009 but currently under reorganization, laments that there is very limited funding for researchers to start pilot projects to explore new ideas. To address the paucity of traditional grants, a small but growing number of nonprofit organizations solicit small contributions from everyday donors to fund academic research projects that typically require grants in the range of a few thousand to tens of thousands of dollars. Once proof of concept is established using such seed grants, the applicant can follow the traditional route to apply for larger grants. A more commercially minded type of microfinancing for science also exists. Unlike SciFlies and FundScience, the Open Source Science Project will "retain partial ownership of any for-profit company that grows out of a funded research project," according to its co-founder, Priyan Weerappuli.

 Having laid the groundwork by generating media attention and surveying potential donors, all three organizations are now accepting grant proposals. To ensure scientific rigor, all proposals are subject to peer review, either by invited reviewers from university faculty members (FundScience and OSSP) or coordinated by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (SciFlies). Each organization has a different requirement for the eligibility of applicants. Only a student, after obtaining the approval of his or her institution and principal investigator, can apply for a FundScience or OSSP grant, while SciFlies only accepts applications from PIs. Unlike traditional grant applications, the ultimate judge is each donor, not the reviewers. To attract potential investors who may not have a science background, the applicants need to write an exciting proposal abstract aimed at the general public, according to the FundScience website.

Bridging the gap between researchers and the public is another goal that all three organizations embrace. Vitrant said that scientists work "in a vacuum striving for scientific knowledge." To engage the donors in the funded projects, FundScience uses social media, such as blogs, YouTube videos and Facebook. Grantees are required to post regular reports to the websites, informing and educating the public.

Though the idea of direct public funding for science is gaining traction, the organizations are at early stages of development. They have a limited choice of projects for funding on their websites. The OSSP only accepts proposals involved in water quality and water resource utilization, and FundScience focuses on hypotheses related to the pathogenesis or modeling of diseases. The organizations want to narrow their focus during the proof-of-concept trial and expand their funding scopes later. One of the biggest challenges the microfinancing organizations face is battling the misconception that research can lead to a quick cure. "A considerable number of potential investors… appear to believe (to varying degrees) that the scientific research process is a linear process leading us from ignorance to enlightenment," says Weerappuli.


A prototype machine to demonstrate optogenetics, funded by FundScience and developed by Backyard Brains with Senior Engineering Design Students from the University of Michigan. Reprinted with permission from

In spite of the hurdles, the founders are passionate about their organizations. As Fries puts it, "I'm sometimes more fascinated by SciFlies than by my own research." Vitrant works fulltime for FundScience. And progress is being made. $512.20 provided by FundScience, an amount that is too tiny to attract the attention of regular funding sources, was all the money needed to allow five undergraduate students at the University of Michigan to make a prototype tool they used for a project in optogenetics. Another grantee is ready to publish results partially funded by FundScience. It is still a long way from addressing the funding shortage for early-stage science projects; however, "the progress has been heartwarming," Vitrant said.

The traditional funding of basic science has largely relied on the patronage of wealthy individuals and, through national funding agencies, taxpayers. Now, with the support of microfinancing, scientists can be less frustrated by funding and more focused on science when they test new projects.

Jianfei (Jeffrey) Zhao ( is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute.

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