The Power of Crowdfunding: A Chat with Ethan Perlstein

 

Ethan Perlstein

We love hearing about crowdfunded research projects. As an academic community that aims to bring together researchers from around the world, we get excited about the grass-roots appeal of science funded by enthusiastic peers. This week, we invited scientist and crowdfunding star Ethan Perlstein to sit down with us for a chat. His work has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Nature, and Science. Ethan told us all about choosing alternative career paths, his recent fundraising campaigns and the new Perlstein Lab.

1) What’s your academic background?

I graduated from college in 2001 with a degree in sociology but I knew all along that I would go to grad school in biology. I worked summer internships at a small biotech company and at NIH in my last two years of high school and throughout college, so the transition was mostly painless. After getting my PhD in 2006, I took an amazing 5-yr independent postdoc position, where I managed a $1MM budget and a small team working in the area I dubbed evolutionary pharmacology. That position ended in 2012, the year I (and many others) encountered the buzz saw that is the postdocalypse. After two failed academic job search cycles, I exited academia to become an indie scientist and biotech entrepreneur focused on orphan disease drug discovery.

2) How did you learn about crowdfunding as a mechanism for funding your research?

I first heard about crowdfunding in 2010/2011 in the context of Kickstarter’s early successes in the arts. But I didn’t make the connection to the sciences until 2012 when I came across the mostly ecology folks who were participating in the SciFund Challenge (which has just launched its 4th round on the science crowdfunding platform Experiment). So if I had to pinpoint it in time, I’d say the summer of 2012 was when I started to consider crowdfunding a basic research project.

3) What led you to think it’s a viable mechanism to get actual science done?

When I realized that the most successful science crowdfunding campaigns were essentially asking for seed/exploratory funding (along the lines of the well established NIH R03 mechanism), I thought a compelling enough proposal could catch fire.

4) You previously did a crowdfunding campaign on RocketHub. Can you tell us about that experience? How much work was it, what was your strategy for success, what would you do different, and was it worth it overall?

Along with my Crowd4Discovery collaborators Prof David Sulzer and Daniel Korostyshevsky, we raised $25,000 for a basic pharmacology project to study the cellular distribution of amphetamines, including methamphetamine. It was a lot of work to run a social media campaign/offensive for two straight months. But we were rewarded with press coverage that stimulated almost half of our donations. For nuts and bolts advice and tactics, please see my published post-campaign analysis.

5) Now you’re opening your own independent lab. How big is the space, what are you working on, and how many people are in your lab?

Perlstein Lab is located in SF’s newest biotech incubator called QB3@953. Right now it’s just me and a team of advisors. The first team member has signed an offer letter, and I expect to fill out a 4-person team by the end of Spring. Perlstein Lab is initially focusing on a group of 47 related lysosomal storage diseases.

6) Besides funding, what have been the biggest hurdles? Are there some things you’d like to do that you can’t outside of a institution?

The “fundraising vortex” has been the biggest challenge by far, dwarfing all others. I’ve actually found few disadvantages to being outside the Edenic confines of the ivory tower, though paywalls are a constant annoyance. But I spent time and money building a brand for myself early in the process. That has gone a long way in terms of networking, opening doors, and getting key opinion leaders to take me seriously.

7) How are you handling requirements of journals to have ethics board approval for animal or human subjects research?

That’s a great question. Short answer is we haven’t crossed that bridge yet. Perlstein Lab’s platform is built on primordial animal models: yeast, worm, flies and fish. Only fish require regulatory approval. And since we’ll be operating in the preclinical space, we won’t be doing any research on human subjects.

8) There are some funding opportunities not available to you due to your independent status, but are there some available to you that wouldn’t be available to the average lab?

Yes. You don’t see academic labs get funding from angel investor networks. Instead they apply for SBIR/STTR grants to get nascent spinoffs off the ground. (Editor’s note: Ethan is reportedly closing on a lead venture investor now.)

9) What would you say to people who turn up their noses at the amount of money you raised in that campaign relative to the average R01?

I always remind them that the R01 isn’t really an apples to apples comparison. Rather the natural analog as I explained above is the R03, which is a smaller, non-renewable grant that funds exploratory projects. The idea here is that some R03s projects blossom into R01s. Just like in music and the arts, it’s one thing to crowdfund an album or a movie, but another thing to crowdfund a band or a movie studio.

10) What are your plans for the future? Any advice for postdocs who are considering this route?

I’m focused like a laser beam on assembling the Perlstein Lab team and becoming operational by the Spring. But I got here in large part by branding myself on my blog and on Twitter. The journey can start with a single tweet.

Mendeley supports the FORCE11 Data Citation Principles

Mendeley was at the very first “Beyond the PDF” meeting in San Diego, which grew into FORCE11. We have been engaged with this community for almost as long as we have existed as a company, and though we aren’t on the group which drafted these principles and as yet have no formal stake in data management, we know personally and frequently interact with many of the people who are and do, thus we think it’s important that we announce our support for their work.

The Data Citation Principles cover a wide range of issues related to data, including specific issues relevant to us, such as credit, attribution, research impact, unique identification, and access. After all, what good is a citation that fails to resolve to the cited object, for either the citing or cited entity, and thus what use are they to a citation manager?

With our work as a leader in the altmetric community, we support researchers getting credit for all their work, not just that which is presented as a narrative publication. Looking at the broader research ecosystem, we can see that we must connect the whole provenance trail from the generation of the raw data to the publication of the figure to complete the cycle from reading and post-publication peer review to the generation of new hypotheses, protocols, and experiments. To this end, we’re also working on reproducible workflows with the Reproducibility Initiative, the importance of which was highlighted by a recent Nature editorial from the Director of the NIH and featured in today’s Elsevier Connect article from Genomics Data.

Congratulations to the FORCE11 team and the Data Citation Synthesis Working Group for taking this important step forward.

Mendeley Advisor Writes a Book About Mendeley

We had another first in the history of Mendeley this year: a Mendeley book! Mendeley Advisor Jacques Raubenheimer wrote a user guide to Mendeley, which he said grew organically out of a desire at his university for training guides to various softwares. We profiled Jacques as our February Advisor of the Month, and asked him about the book.

 

Why did you decide to write a book about Mendeley?

I got started using Mendeley because during my PhD I used another program that was discontinued, so I was in the market for new reference management. At the same time, I had this computer background where I was teaching people to use Mendeley, Excel, Powerpoint, and so on. So people asked me to recommend referencing software and I recommended Mendeley. And then I had to do training and needed training material, then I started writing and thought, well, there is a need for this, so write a bit more and make a book!

 

I have to ask, Is Mendeley so complicated you need an entire book?

Firstly, I think one of the things I notice is people try to use a software program for what they want to get done and they don’t realize what they could do with it. So yes, I don’t think the average Mendeley user needs the book but I think most Mendeley users could benefit from it because it could show them things Mendeley can do that they might not have been aware of.

 

How did you end up working with members of the Mendeley team?

When I started doing the training, I saw the Mendeley Advisor Program and I realized it would help me with doing the training. So I registered as an Advisor and started using the Advisor Forum, and a lot of the development team is actually active there. Here and there I had questions and I took the liberty of asking them questions. I haven’t had privy information, so there might be some inaccuracies in the book, that’s my own responsibility, but they’ve been helpful if I ask or send a question, which is great.

 

What would you change about Mendeley?

Well, read the book, I have a list of recommendations (laughs). For me, the big thing I would for Mendeley to do, and I think they’re working on this, is to clean up the research  library, there are a lot of duplicates. And then of course, though it doesn’t apply to me, a lot of Mendeley users are asking for the Android version, and I know they are working on that.

 

Where can I get the book?

Amazon is the main seller. In South Africa it is in other stores, but it is on all local Amazon bookstores, such as Amazon.fr, Amazon.au

 

So what’s next?

The big challenge is to try and get the book on the Kindle which is not that simple. If it was just a text book I could’ve done it already but there are a lot of graphics and they don’t render so well on the Kindle. And then the Mendeley team is keeping me busy, because, since the book has come out, a new version of Mendeley has been released, so my hope is to incorporate those changes and maybe have a second edition next year.

Master the subtleties of nanoparticle synthesis using this JoVE video article

Jove Feb

Cite this article: Manthiram, K., Beberwyck, B. J., Talapin, D. V., and Alivisatos, A. P.  Seeded Synthesis of CdSe/CdS Rod and Tetrapod Nanocrystals

 J. Vis. Exp. (82), e50731, doi:10.3791/50731 (2013).

Here’s another guest blog post featuring a video article from JoVE (The Journal of Visualized Experiments). February’s article gives us insight into the fascinating world of tunable nanoparticles, a technology that enables the LED displays which have become commonplace in most of our TVs. Better mastery of these materials will lead to improved, brighter, and longer-lasting displays, so it’s fitting that the experiment is brought to you through the medium of video!  Do follow the link below to check it  out and as usual you can let us know what you think in the comments below.

By Val Buntrock, Ph.D.

Science Editor, JoVE

The rapidly growing nano field emerged from the interdisciplinary collaboration between the chemistry and physics communities. Sub-molecular particles display unique photophysical properties, including unusually high absorption extinction coefficients and fluorescent quantum yields, making them attractive materials for use in energy harvesting systems or optical display devices such as TV monitors.

Particle size and shape greatly influence the optical properties of nanoparticles. Learning how to modulate these features is ideal for optimizing application performance. Despite the immense amount of research focused on nano, precise synthetic control remains elusive, until now. A video article recently published in JoVE, Seeded Synthesis of CdSe/CdS Rod and Tetrapod Nanocrystals, demonstrates how to control the size and shape of cadmium selenium/cadmium sulfur, CdSe/CdS heterostructures, paving the way for more controlled nano syntheses and predictable optical properties.

The Alivisatos group is able to grow either nanorods or tetrapods of CdSe/CdS particles using a seeded synthetic approach and separating the nucleation and growth phases. In the initial seeding stage, the group prepares CdSe spheres in one flask. After confirming the size and crystallinity using scanning electron microscopy (SEM) and X-ray diffraction techniques (XRD), the CdSe spheres are transferred to a separate flask to serve as the seed where CdS is added to grow CdSe/CdS heterostructures.

Depending on the crystal form of the CdSe seed spheres, the Alivisatos group can grow the heterostructures to form nanorods or tetrapods. If the precursor CdSe sphere is a wurtzite phase, nanorods form, while a zinc-blende crystal phase promotes tetrapod growth. Both structures are confirmed using SEM and XRD.

As expected, the two different CdSe/CdS crystal shapes exhibit distinguishable absorbencies that are desirably enhanced relative to the starting CdSe spheres. In this video article, the Alivisatos group demonstrates that improved optical absorbencies can be obtained with skilled synthetic techniques. Further, every subtle nuance of this delicate preparation method is captured in JoVE video format, leaving no detail shadowed in condensed field-specific language, allowing both novices and experts to learn from and implement seeded nanoparticle syntheses in their own lab.

Tunable nanoparticles are especially desirable for a technology found in most American homes- bright light emitting diode (LED) television displays. The crucial preparation details presented in Alivisatos’ video article can be modified for a variety of materials, leading to improved displays with brighter colors and longer lifetimes. Come watch this method and many others on an LED TV by visiting the JoVE booth at the upcoming American Physical Society Conference (booth #635/734) and the American Chemical Society Meeting (booth #830) in March and learn more about nanoparticles and their larger compatriots, molecules.