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.

Meet the Mendeley Community!

As we cross over into the latter half of the academic semester, I can already tell it’s going to be a great semester for us. We’ve crossed over a million users and have seen millions of documents added in the past few months. This isn’t to toot our own horn, though, because we couldn’t have done it without the support of the wonderful Mendeley community. So I’d like to take a few sentences to thank everyone who has made this our best semester yet.
Read More »

Mendeley Talk on Nov 26th at HQ in London

We would like to invite you to an exciting event:

Mendeley Talks on November 26th 2010 in Central London

Here’s your chance to listen to Jason Hoyt, R&D and Chief Scientist at Mendeley, talk about how you can get your research noticed:

Getting your research noticed on Mendeley, Google, and everywhere else

Ah! So you’ve finally gotten that manuscript through two rounds of revisions and it’s been published! Or perhaps you haven’t published yet, but you’re considering doing a pre-print. So, what are the best practices in getting that post-print noticed? Or how do you ensure that a pre-print will do its job, but not prevent you from getting a peer-reviewed version as well? Come to find out and also learn how Mendeley ranks your papers in its search catalog and recommendation engine. We’ll also discuss whether boundaries should exist in the extent to which one should promote their research.

Afterwards, you will get the chance to have some fantastic Feuerzangenbowle and chat with Mendeley’s CEO Victor Henning. Otherwise, you can grab a beer and try to beat co-founder Paul Föckler at Foosball.

Of course, this event is completely free, and you are welcome to bring along interested colleagues and friends.

The agenda:
6:30 Drinks and Snacks
7:00 “Getting your research noticed on Mendeley, Google, and everywhere else”, Jason Hoyt
7:30 Open Discussion
7:45 Feuerzangenbowle and Snacks with Foosball and insight to Mendeley
8:30 Official end

November 26th 2010, 6:30 – 8:30pm
144a Clerkenwell Road
White Bear Yard, Ground Floor
London, EC1R 5DF

To RSVP please get back to

With best wishes, and great anticipation,

The Mendeley Team

Lord Martin Rees, Evan Harris, and Aleks Krotoski confirmed as keynote speakers at Science Online London 2010

We are honoured to announce that our Keynote Speakers for Science Online London 2010 are Lord Martin Rees, Evan Harris and Aleks Krotoski.

Widely acknowledged as one of the world’s preeminent cosmologists, Lord Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal, President of the Royal Society and Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at Trinity College, Cambridge – in addition to being a prolific author and speaker. He has received countless awards for his varied contributions to his field, and was this year elected to deliver the Reith Lectures for the BBC. Billed by TED as ‘one of our key thinkers on the future of humanity within the cosmos’, Lord Rees has also served on many bodies here in the UK and abroad, dealing with education and international collaboration in science.

Evan Harris was a doctor before entering politics, eventually becoming the Liberal Democrats’ Shadow Minister in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and Shadow Minister for Science until May this year. He remains a strong voice for science within Parliament.

Aleks Krotoski is an academic and journalist who writes about and studies technology and interactivity. For her PhD in Social Psychology, she examined how information spreads around the social networks of the World Wide Web. She writes regularly for the Guardian and the Observer, and hosts a technology podcast called Tech Weekly. Just this February, she presented The Virtual Revolution for BBC Two – a documentary about the social history of the Web.

This will again be an amazing conference, aimed at changing the face of science. We are still a month away from the conference and have few tickets left, so you need to move fast if you want to join us.

You can follow the conference on Twitter @soloconf (comment with hashtag #solo10).

Join us for Open Office Friday!

Open Office Friday is coming up once again!

If you don’t remember what this is – it’s when we open up our office to friends and users of Mendeley and have a bit of a party. Please drop by as we’d love to meet you! What you think shapes what we are, so we’re especially eager to hear what you think of Mendeley and the direction in which we’re headed. If you have a pet peeve, here’s your chance to air it! Mainly though, we’re here to have a fun time.

Here’s what Nathan had to say about the last Open Office Friday:

The Mendeley-ers have a rare vibe that mixes the sharp thinking of a leading tech start-up with “young researcher out to change the world” enthusiasm. There was no shortage of beverages, pizza and friendly faces keen to talk about the trials and tribulations of research. It was also great as place to bounce around ideas with lots of cross-discipline discussion that is hard to find elsewhere.

I would heartily recommend the experience to anyone who needs to kick open their PhD bubble a bit or who wants to meet the folks who making world-leading steps into cracking Vannevar Bush’s half-century-old challenge [of making more accessible our bewildering store of knowledge].

— Nathan Eng, Engineering Design PhD student, University of Cambridge

So come for pizza, drinks, foosball.. or just to hang out and chat about your research! To RSVP, simply comment on this post or email

August 20, 2010, 6 – 9pm
144a Clerkenwell Road, Ground Floor
London EC1R 5DF

With best wishes, and great anticipation,
The Mendeley Team

Become a Mendeley University Advisor

Mendeley University Advisors are part of our award-winning and amazing project that will make researchers’, scientists’ and students’ working lives happier by creating the for research and by organizing the world’s academic research.

We want to invite YOU to be part of Mendeley by becoming a Mendeley University Advisor!

If you are a power user and are enthusiastic about Mendeley and what we want to achieve and you’d like to spread the word about us at your university – while receiving some great benefits along the way – now’s your chance!

We’re recruiting a select group of Mendeley University Advisors to be the official Mendeley representative at your university and to help us keep in touch with Mendeley’s growing userbase at your university.

What you’d do:

Spread the word about Mendeley in your university in any way that you’re comfortable with. Some things our current advisors at universities like Cambridge, Columbia, and Princeton do are:

  • Putting up posters
  • Giving presentations or demos, to classes and 1 on 1
  • Conducting teaching sessions
  • Forming local user communities
  • Introducing Mendeley at university libraries
  • Talking to friends and colleagues about Mendeley
  • or any other good ideas you might have!

Basically, you’re going to be our number one contact person at your university and the official Mendeley representative at your university. You’ll also help us better understand the needs of users, labs or departments at your institution, so we can keep improving Mendeley.

Some of the benefits:

Fame, glory, and you get to:

  • Be a part of the new way research is done – we want to make science and research more open and awesome!
  • Become the official Mendeley representative at your university, institution, or organization.
  • Get Mendeley’s premium features free of charge.
  • Get the opportunity to travel to another university or host a Mendeley presentation out of town.
  • Get to know our team and other Advisors from around the world and make important contacts.
  • Be the first to learn about what’s going on at Mendeley.
  • Get access to new features before others do.
  • Get access to our Mendeley advisor forum.
  • Have pizza and free drinks on Mendeley when you give a demo or talk at your institution.
  • Loads of free Mendeley swag (stuff like t-shirts, pens, stickers, etc.)!
  • Last but not least: Get a shiny advisor badge on your Mendeley profile (if you like)!

If you have any further questions, contact us at, or get in touch directly with our community liaisons, William or Ricardo.

William Gunn, PhD

Open Science Advocate, Assay Development Consultant and co-founder of
Twitter: @mrgunn
Community Liaison, Mendeley
San Diego, California, United States
Research field: Biological Sciences – Cellular Biology
Adult Stem Cell Research, Bone Biology, Statistical Analysis, Cancer, single molecule analytical techniques

Ricardo Vidal, M. Eng.

Ph.D. Candidate, Queen’s University
Twitter: @rvidal
Community Liaison, Mendeley
Kingston, Canada
Research field: Biological Sciences – Bioinformatics
Bioinformatics, Synthetic Biology, Stem cells, Oncology

Ready to go? Click here go to our Advisor signup page and join today!