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Will crowdfunding get a synthetic biology win?

From 2008 to 2014 the United States invested around $820 million in synthetic biology research. About 0.07% as much money went to synthetic biology projects through crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or Experiment.com. Of those crowdfunded projects, the Kickstarter campaign called Glowing Plants was by far the most well-funded.  Glowing Plants, like its name suggests, aimed to genetically engineer plants that could light up using the genes from fireflies. After a tenuous four years of alternative funding and backup plans, the goal of making a brightly glowing plant is officially shelved. The question is whether Glowing Plants will continue to be the high mark for crowding funding of synthetic biology or whether there are future successes out there.

The ‘Glowing Plants’ Kickstarter is no more

In 2013, Antony Evans got well over seven times his $65,000 crowdfunding goal to engineer plants that light up. The pitch laid out an ambitious plan for how this fun glowing plant fit into the promise of synthetic biology. It was nothing like a technical grant proposal that a synthetic biology researcher usually submits for funding. It was selling the idea of a synthetic biology product that you could put on your desk. A fun novelty item that’s more play than work. Unfortunately, technical hurdles exist even for playful ideas.

If you go back through Glowing Plants updates you can track the arc of their ambitions.

April 23, 2013: Glow Plants project launches on Kickstarter

April 30, 2013: “How bright can we make our plants grow?”

August 13, 2014: “accepted by Y combinator!” They got to present at the tech accelerator’s Demo Day and pitch investors.

April 10, 2015: Should we switch plant species

May 20, 2016: “Help us build momentum on WeFunder!” This platformed helped to raise another $250,000 for the project with donors buying small shares

August 3, 1016: “5 out of 6 genes successfully integrated into a plant”

April 18, 2017: “Stopping work on the Glowing Plant” Contamination in the fragrant moss strains caused the team to downsize to still afford to get the planned shipments out. With the financial hit, their plan to put revenue toward the glowing plant research was ultimately halted. They conclude that “that despite that failure the project can still leave a positive legacy in inspiring people to learn more about synthetic biology and its benefits – and hopefully one day someone does finally make a Glowing Plant.”

There has been plenty of media attention for both the initial hype of Glowing Plants and the eventual decline into unrealized ideas, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be other high profile uses of crowdfunding for synthetic biology.

There’s still interest crowdfunding synthetic biology

Synthetic biology still makes it way onto a lot of the popular crowdfunding sites that have science: Kickstarter, Indiegogo, WeFunder and experiment.com. Yet none of these campaigns have reacher the financial backing that Glowing Plants got. Typical synthetic biology crowdfunding is raising a few thousand dollars and is primarily supporting educational activities.

The most common kind of crowdfunding success involves the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition that gives student the chance to work on and present their own synthetic biology projects. Some successfully funded research projects include $3001 for DNA memory, $2500 for detecting tuberculosis, $2189 for paper based pathogen detection, $1572 for detection of expired oxytocin medication, and $2120 for a high-school team studying crosstalk between neighboring genes. Typical federal grants for synthetic biology research on the orders of hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars over a few years.

But there’s still mismatche between synthetic biology and crowdfunding

Synthetic biology research is still expensive. For a synthetic biology product to be funded and hit the market takes an enormous amount of money. While iGEM teams can count student learning itself as a victory, any crowdfunding that promises a deliverable product will be in trouble. For instance, experiment.com has a collection of iGEM projects being funded.

Glowing Plant’s creator, Antony Evans, wrote a piece on equity crowdfunding and explained why the “inherent tension between promising rewards and the challenges and uncertainties of biological research” makes Kickstarter a bad model for scientific research. He sees equity crowdfunding as a more powerful tool in the biotech space.  This newly legal mechanism called title III equity crowdfunding allows early stage startups to raise money from any ordinary person in return for shares in the company.

But no crowdfunding mechanism brings along the advisory input one would expect from a traditional investor. Good investors usually bring some expertise, guidance, or connections. Distributed funding is unlikely to bring that human capital. Even if some of your investors have those capabilities, none will have enough influence in the company to make an impact.

What do we need for successful crowdfunded synbio projects?

Synthetic biology will continue to get cheaper as DNA synthesis costs drop and the DIYBio community matures. That said, there are still many research projects that seem poorly suited for crowdfunding.

  • Some tangible product for the consumer – Crowdfunders like rewards. They don’t always have to be particular useful but Kickstart has shown that users are willing to put in money to feel a part of something and get a real thing as a token of that participation. Although equity crowdfunding puts the reward as share in the potential financial success, there will still need to be some product to ever have a return. That’s not a pressure on most research projects.
  • Other side benefits other than the ultimate success of the design  – Worthy achievements like student education, data useful to other projects, and new tools can come out of even unsuccessful projects and encourage more backers.
  • Build on the work of others – Startup companies are often building out of intellectual property already developed in research labs. The challenge is to commercialize the innovation. Right now too many ideas are still being pitched for crowdfunding without any initial research backing the idea up. For synthetic biology, open science projects may provide enough genetic parts to let people use them off the shelf.
  • Cheap ideas – If you want to take an idea to market without venture capital, it would have to be extremely low cost given the money currently out there in crowdfunding. The more likely approach is to use crowdfunding to get the attention and initial work done to attract traditional investors.
  • Better metrics and transparency – Traditional investors have more power over and insight into the development of the startup. If equity crowdfunding is going to allow for people to make smart investments, the crowd needs more tools to properly assess the proposal.
  • A success – A high profile success would go a long way to boost crowdfunding. Equity crowdfunding in particular needs a win to show that it’s actually possible to make money. Until then, it’s tough to see it attracting more than the early adopters.

Ultimately, I think synthetic biology will get some victories in the crowdfunding arena. It’s unlikely to be a cure for cancer or global warming, but hopefully there’s a fun idea out there that can be made possible with small dollar backers and the power of biology.

Extra reading

See the appendix to the U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research from the Wilson Center to calculate synthetic biology funding from 2008-2014.

Atlantic: “Whatever Happened to the Glowing Plant Kickstarter?”

MIT Tech Review: “Why Kickstarter’s Glowing Plant Left Backers in the Dark

Synbiobeta: Review of RevBio’s Crowd Funding Campaign

Top Sites for Crowdfunding Scientific Research

 

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