Beyond government grants: Widening your funding net


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“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket” is sound financial advice for both investors and researchers. Supplementing government grants with support from foundations, industry partners, and crowdfunding means that scientists must learn to navigate new fundraising systems. But they may also gain connections to broader, science-related communities.

“Single-origin”—referring to a product that comes from one specific location, crop, or supplier—is now a trend for coffee and chocolate, but science funding is moving toward diversification. The reason? The proportion of U.S. R&D supported by federal funds fell from nearly 70% in 1973 to below 60% in 2016, according to a U.S. National Science Foundation report. Nonprofit and private organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation fill the funding gap for some researchers, while others explore options such as direct pitches to industry partners, investors, and crowdfunding donors.

Financial security is just one reason to diversify funding. Small awards from institutional sources, foundations, or crowdfunding can replace money lost to budget cuts. Supplemental funding can also support preliminary data collection for a larger proposal. Additionally, industry or investor partners may provide both funding and business mentoring for a scientist whose project has commercial potential. Or researchers can endorse open science while raising money on crowdfunding and science-challenge platforms. This article explores alternative funding resources that supplement or replace traditional government mechanisms.

Broadening your funding base

Nicole Achee, research associate professor in biological sciences, University of Notre Dame, Indiana, has a compelling reason to vary her funding sources. Her research goes “from lab to field,” using laboratory assays to evaluate methods to control insects that carry diseases, then testing the effectiveness of those methods where disease occurs. In addition to support from the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, and industry, Achee’s team is receiving about USD 14 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for work on Aedes-borne viruses such as dengue and Zika.

“The more diversified your funding,” Achee says, “the more you have to be aware about what is due and when.” Government funding is often timed to the fiscal year, she says, but foundations may have completely different schedules. A competent program manager to track paperwork and deadlines is critical.

To broaden a funding base, Achee advises following news from organizations that specialize in your field and regularly searching for novel funders that fit your research. Work with your institution’s development and grants office to find opportunities with industry partners, private foundations, and nongovernmental organizations. Companies such as Instrumentl provide this service for a fee.

Once you have money from a donor organization, Achee says, you may be asked to serve on their committees and panels. “Say yes,” she advises. “You’ll be part of discussions that shape the research agenda, and you’ll hear about upcoming funding calls.” People you meet through these activities can lead to further connections. “It opens the door to larger networks of funding opportunities,” she adds.

Researchers can also network through their own teams. A multidisciplinary, international group ensures diverse expertise and perspectives—and possibly funding as well, notes Achee. Some foundations give awards only to researchers based in certain countries, but these scientists can participate in global collaborations.

Thinking creatively about potential funders can pay off. An agricultural or brewing industry association might fund fungal genomics or chemical analysis of water or soil, for instance. The American Chemical Society (ACS) Petroleum Research Fund supports Manny Curotto, professor and chair of chemistry and physics at Arcadia University in Pennsylvania, in his fundamental research on quantum methods, a field that is relevant to energy storage.

The fund gives nearly 200 grants a year, totaling USD 17 million in 2017, and is part of a larger ACS program supporting research and education. Curotto finds that the funding process and paperwork are similar to what is required for government grants, although if you’re used to the submission system of a particular agency, he advises, expect to spend time learning the quirks of a new system.

Curotto tells early-career researchers at primarily undergraduate institutions to look into awards from the U.S. National Science Foundation, Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation, and Research Corporation for Science. “And don’t give up,” he says. Funding agencies want to see that recipients can manage a grant and deliver what they have proposed, so “it always looks better if you’ve had other grants.” Internal institutional awards help researchers demonstrate competence in grant management, and can also aid them in getting preliminary data for external grants.

Fundraising through public engagement

Experiment (formerly Microryza) is one of the first science-specific crowdfunding sites. Although one campaign driven by an exceptionally extensive network raised USD 2.6 million to study Batten disease, a fatal, inherited disorder of the nervous system, the average amount raised is about USD 4,100. Cindy Wu, Experiment cofounder, says that crowdfunding is an efficient way to raise seed funding, and emphasizes that the process is more transparent and less restricted than traditional mechanisms. “Grad students often tell me that Experiment gave them the freedom to work on their idea without tailoring it to a grant or foundation,” she says. A 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper shows that crowdfunding supports projects initiated by people who don’t usually get grants. More than 60% of Experiment crowdfunders at educational institutions were students or postdocs.

Crowdfunding worked for Olwen Grace, a scientist at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom. Like Achee’s research, her study on the evolution of succulent plants spans both field and lab work. She needs a broad funding base to cover activities ranging from traveling for sample collection and habitat observation to analyzing data in her London laboratory.

In 2016, Grace ran a successful crowdfunding campaign to fund sequence analysis of plants related to Aloe vera. Because it often contributes ingredients to skin-care products, aloe is “a charismatic plant,” says Grace, and her colleagues urged her to use it to crowdfund her work on desert plant evolution. Her campaign raised GBP 10,700, which Grace says could have come from a few small grants, “but this boost of a single grant from the crowdfunding campaign allowed us to do the work much faster.”

Grace used the Crowd.Science (formerly Walacea) platform. Natalie Jonk, Crowd.Science cofounder, says crowdfunding has two parts. The first is creating a campaign page that’s appealing to backers. The second, harder task is attracting people to that page by thinking carefully about outreach. “It’s a bit of a chain reaction,” she says, “building trust by getting your friends, family, and peers to promote you. People further down the chain like to see that a project has funding before they contribute.”

Grace recalls that the effort of preparing the campaign video, researcher bios, and website was less stressful than grant writing. However, when the campaign was live, “it required constant attention,” she says. Teamwork, including help from fundraising experts at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, was crucial, especially for “passing the social media baton,” to ensure that someone was always promoting the campaign online and monitoring responses. 

An overarching goal of science crowdfunding is community building and raising public interest in research. Grace sends regular research reports to her backers. These are like grant progress reports, she says, but have “a lighter touch,” and include explanations of techniques and results for nonscientists. Sometimes she has to report that “we’re still working on it,” but honest communication is the point. “The donors are expressing interest in our work, so the least we can do is show them what it looks like when we do our research,” she adds. 

Crowd.Science offers researchers who campaign on its platform the additional service of seeking support on their behalf from philanthropists and businesses interested in their work. For example, outdoor equipment suppliers might support environmental projects. “Often scientists don’t think of business sponsors as an option, and they don’t know how to approach corporate marketing or social responsibility departments,” says Jonk. The success of this strategy varies, but she hopes that as the platform grows, their sponsor network will expand. “We’ve had about 5,000 people back projects, and Experiment has had more than 40,000,” she says. “When that figure is a million, we’ll have a community we can reach out to with projects we know are interesting to them.” Jonk’s vision is to tailor outreach to groups as large as hundreds of thousands of people who have backed similar projects.

The Experiment platform also offers possibilities beyond just crowdfunding. Campaigns may be eligible for challenge grants in which projects within a field such as botany or archaeology compete to attract the most donors for a bonus award. In honor of Earth Day 2018, the CAA Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the entertainment industry’s Creative Artists Agency, fully funded nine environmental projects on the Experiment site for a total gift of USD 25,000. 

Attracting a global audience for foundations and other funders is the mission of Thinkable, founded by Ben McNeil, climate researcher at the University of New South Wales in Australia. Giving away money is harder than you might think, McNeil says. Established foundations have their own platforms and networks for attracting proposals, but smaller foundations, philanthropists, academic institutions, companies, and nonprofit organizations often need help promoting their awards. “Everyone is so consumed by information,” McNeil comments, “that funders need targeted, efficient channels to find their audience. We provide a community they can reach out to. We try to get funders’ causes and scientists’ research in front of as many eyeballs as possible.”  

Thinkable’s services include hosting a funder’s campaign page and offering guidance about application forms and judging. The model has been compared to HeroX, which runs problem-solving challenges, except that Thinkable is focused on research, McNeil says. Thinkable helps scientists who are part of the platform’s community match their research to funding opportunities. And scientists who participate in contests inevitably raise the profile of their research, notes McNeil.

Thinkable users include companies that want maximum publicity for a science prize and universities holding a contest to motivate researchers to make and share videos showcasing their science. An example is the World Science Festival Brisbane’s annual Queensland Women in STEM Prize, for which each applicant supplies a page with a video, McNeil says. The award site gets more than 100,000 views, so “everyone who applies is a winner.” 

McNeil’s ultimate goal aligns with science crowdfunding: opening science to the public and helping researchers connect with a broader audience. He is particularly motivated to support young scientists doing multidisciplinary, high-risk research.

Researchers whose projects have commercial potential can find another audience. McNeil observes, “In my view, the biggest source of potential new funding comes from industry groups looking to partner with researchers and startups around the world.” Global matching of researchers and industry partners is part of Thinkable’s services. Researchers can also pitch directly to industry funders and investors.

Biotech big leagues

Researchers with potentially marketable life science projects and business ambitions can get a four-day introduction to the biotechnology world at annual trade conferences hosted by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO).

A feature of the annual BIO International Convention, which boasted more than 18,000 attendees in 2018, and of the BIO World Congress on Industrial Biotechnology, is BIO’s One-on-One Partnering system. BIO’s director of partnering products and services, Willie Reaves, says the system is also available at other conferences, including regional biotech meetings. Participants in the system create a profile with text, images, and video, peruse profiles of industry R&D and business-development representatives from around the world, and then make appointments for 30-minute meetings during the conference they will be attending. At the BIO International Convention, meetings happen in 600 booths in a sportsfield-sized area, Reaves explains. Scientist–inventors may be represented by their institute’s technology transfer office, or they can attend themselves. The point of the meetings, he says, “is to spark conversations or follow up on a previous contact to discuss commercialization.” Scientists who are ready to launch a startup can request space from science parks and incubators in the partnering system. The atmosphere is intense—there were 3,900 partnering companies and 46,916 meetings at the 2018 conference, for example—but attendees who can handle that atmosphere can be productive. “One participant,” Reaves says, “said he made as many contacts that week as he did during the entire year.” 

The BIO International Convention has an academic area for university researchers and people interested in partnering with them. Researchers who have advanced to the startup stage might participate in investor pitching at a startup stadium and get advice from industry and investor judges.

Government funding is still the cornerstone of research support, but scientists have other options. Success with these options requires identifying, interacting with, and participating in communities of foundations, investors, or citizens interested in your field. A critical element is to align your project with the funder’s scope, whether it is a foundation, industry, or individual donor. Reaves says that “specificity and targeting” are critical, and those who have tried the alternate-funding route advise being persistent to find the right fit.

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