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DailyTidings.com
  • Crowd-funded science

    Microryza helps round up dollars for science projects that may otherwise have fallen through the cracks
  • SEATTLE — When two University of Washington graduates launched one of the first crowd-funding sites for science, they had to beat the bushes for projects. A year later, so many researchers are beating on Microryza's door that the startup born in Seattle is juggling a backlog of 500 proposals.
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  • SEATTLE — When two University of Washington graduates launched one of the first crowd-funding sites for science, they had to beat the bushes for projects. A year later, so many researchers are beating on Microryza's door that the startup born in Seattle is juggling a backlog of 500 proposals.
    Recent cuts in federal science budgets are helping fuel the demand, says co-founder Cindy Wu. But the enthusiastic response also proves that too many good ideas are falling through the cracks of traditional science funding, she added.
    So far, individual donors have helped bankroll an expedition to bring a Triceratops skeleton to Seattle, a project to cure parasitic-worm infections, and the development of an electronic race car.
    But whether crowd funding will evolve into a significant force in science remains uncertain.
    "Right now, we're just a small sliver of the pie," Wu said. "But I think in the next year you will see that sliver is going to grow really, really rapidly."
    About 80 projects have raised a combined $200,000 through Microryza ("micro-rye-zuh"), less than half the amount of the average federal grant for biomedical research.
    Researchers have already started ratcheting up their ambitions, though. In the early days, few proposals aimed for more than a couple thousand dollars. Projects seeking $10,000 to $20,000 are common now, and several have succeeded. Two research groups are trying to drum up $65,000 each for studies of the way the brain controls the immune system, and how speed affects the bodies of race car drivers.
    "A lot of people are skeptical as to whether or not you will be able to raise large sums of money," Wu said. "But I think it will definitely get into the multimillions."
    Seattle-based Planetary Resources, which wants to launch a small space telescope, recently raised more than $1.5 million through the crowd funding site Kickstarter. To entice donors, it is mounting an elaborate online campaign and offering rewards ranging from a front-row seat at the launch to personalized photos from space.
    Few individual scientists can recruit celebrity spokespeople or hire a PR firm, and courting donors online can be time-consuming. Submitting a proposal to Microryza is easy, but scientists are expected to also post a short video and regular updates on their research and fundraising progress.
    "Most scientists don't have time to be both scientists and cheerleaders," said UW biology instructor Evan Sugden.
    Sugden's first Microryza campaign raised $2,250 for a beekeeping class on the verge of being eliminated. "It really kept us going," he said.
    The cause struck a chord with bee enthusiasts. Students and members of the UW bee club pitched in to keep visibility up through Facebook and other social media, and to solicit potential donors.
    But without a similar effort, Sugden's second request — for $2,800 to explore methods of purging pesticides from beeswax — fell flat. Because he didn't raise the full amount during his allotted time, Sugden got nothing, as per Microryza's rules.
    "We just didn't have enough hands on deck, and we didn't shake the right trees," said Sugden, who is ambivalent about taking another run at crowd funding. "Basically, we're just high-tech beggars."
    Wu and fellow UW science grad Denny Luan founded Microryza out of frustration at being unable to get funding for their own research. (The name is a combination of "microcredit" and "mycorrhiza" — tiny fungi that nurture the roots of plants.)
    Competition for federal grants has become so stiff that more than 80 percent of proposals are rejected. In biomedicine, the average age for a first-time grant recipient is 42.
    UW paleontologist Greg Wilson has applied for 10 federal grants over the past five years, scoring only one victory. "You can end up putting a lot of effort into a proposal and coming home with nothing," he said.
    Through Microryza, Wilson was able to raise more than $11,000 for a four-day field school in Montana for K-12 science teachers. The teachers learn how to excavate fossils and gain insights they can share with their students, while Wilson and his colleagues get assistance with their research on dinosaur extinction and the rise of mammals.
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