Great ideas rarely want for a pen or paper. The celebrated physicist Richard Feynman literally drew his way to insight, to the point where he saw the pen and paper as inseparable from the act of thinking. But what if your potentially great idea needs something a little bit bigger to take flight? What if, say, you needed to buy antibodies, or rent time on a flow cytometer (a device for analyzing cell structure)?
As research costs go, Cindy Wu, a 22-year-old student from Bellevue at the University of Washington wasn’t asking for much — $5,000 would cover the antibodies and the flow cytometer. And her idea was compelling: She had been part of an award-winning undergraduate team that had created an enzyme to treat anthrax by stripping away a coating that prevented the immune system from recognizing the bacteria as a threat; now, she wanted to use the same enzyme to target the same coating on staph bacteria.
Wu asked her professor where she could apply for the money. “You can’t,” he told her, “because you are 22 years old and you don’t have a Ph.D. and you don’t want more than $25,000.” A simple experiment, with potentially far reaching consequences (hospitals are stalked by staph bacteria) suddenly became impossibly challenging — for all the wrong reasons.
How many great or even just good research ideas, she wondered, had died because they hadn’t fit precisely into the government’s formula for science funding, because — absurdly — they required too little money or came too early in a researcher’s career? As she thought about how scientific research was funded in academia, its conservatism, its aversion to taking risks, its shrinking availability, it seemed more than just a problem for 20-somethings like herself: to move up the career ladder from graduate student to post doc to faculty often meant that you might never get to do that experiment you really wanted to do — that experiment that might change the world.
“Why can’t we just create a Kiva for scientists?” asked her best friend, Denny Luan, a biochemistry and economics major, who had launched a branch of the crowd funded micro-finance site (motto: “Empower people around the world with a $25 loan”) at the University of Washington. It seemed odd that there were crowd-funding platforms for almost everything but scientific research. Why couldn’t scientists have their own Kickstarter? Instead of just dreaming, Wu recalls, “we were like, ‘well … we should just try to build one and see if it works.”
They started by canvassing hundreds of scientists. “Every single person said, ‘Yes — if you built this, I would use it,’ says Wu. They all had one project they wanted to work on, one idea they had been thinking about for a long time, one thing that they said they would love to devote a lot of time to — but which stood no chance of getting funding from the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Health, the two largest sources of science funding in academia.
“So we took nine of those scientists and filmed them,” says Wu. “We taught ourselves to code, and built a website. It was an experiment: Do people want to give directly to scientists? And if they do want to give to science, what do they want in return? “I just wanted to know if it would work,” says Wu. But wanting to know required a bigger experiment. She and Luan sank their limited savings into launching a company, Microryza — “a Kickstarter for research.”
They started by trying to raise money in Seattle. “Absolutely no one wanted to fund us,” she says. “Investors wanted to know what our exit strategy was. We didn’t have one. Our exit strategy was to find a cure for cancer, or put a man on Mars, or build a time machine. So they thought that we weren’t taking it seriously. But actually, that was the truth.”
In 2013, they applied to Y Combinator, the Bay Area seed fund that helps start-ups start up. All it took was a 10-minute interview for Wu and Luan to be accepted into the fund’s highly competitive three-month boot camp. When they came to present to thousands of top investors at Y Combinator’s “Demo Day,” Wu’s three-minute pitch ended up netting $1.2 million. It didn’t hurt that one of the Bay Area’s most gifted researchers, Elizabeth Iorns, was using the platform to fund her cancer research, or that Bill Gates said that Microryza was a “solution [that] helps close the gap for potentially promising but unfunded projects.”
Two years on and with a smart name change, “Experiment” has launched 5,058 projects and funded 336 of them. Current projects include research into making anesthesia safer for dogs through nutrition, sequencing the Black Rhino genome, restoring freshwater biodiversity, and finding a cure for Batten disease.
And then there is Lil Bub, the Internet cat sensation whose genetic mutations make her look adorable — she has massive eyes and her tongue hangs out — but which are highly debilitating. A group of German researchers used Experiment to raise $6,000 dollars to sequence her genome. “That is the kind of thing no major research organization would fund,” says Wu, even though it helps connect the public to what scientists do, asks them to think about why science can be relevant to their lives, and opens the possibility that they could do science too.
Wu has come from being seen as a bright undergraduate to, at 26, being sought out as a global innovator. At a recent State Department event on innovation in the bio-economy, she gave succinct, thoughtful answers to panel questions but then would turn to the audience of ambassadors, officials, corporate leaders and scientists, adding “and my challenge to you is: don’t just talk about why science is important, go fund science that you think is important; find ways around the paywalls that prevent so much academic research from being accessed and shared in the developing world.” What made these challenges — what made Wu — so compelling was the tone: matter-of-fact meets commander-in-chief.
“Cindy is a ball full of energy,” says Dee Boersma, one of the world’s top experts on penguins, who taught Wu at the University of Washington. “She knows no fear.”
“I’m constantly being reminded of one of the first things I learned about her,” says Luan. “Once she has her mind set on something, you’re best off either getting out of the way or helping out.”
Trevor Butterworth is Director of Sense About Science USA.