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.