Knowledge doesn’t come cheap.
It’s a sad fact that money often stops the world’s brightest minds from fulfilling their potential. Much like a budding entrepreneur whose brilliant idea never comes to fruition because of a lack of funds, there’s no telling what the scientific landscape would look like if money was no object.
While funding is still difficult to attain, crowdfunding - where entrepreneurs clamour for investment through platforms such as Kickstarter and Crowdcube - represents another avenue for fundraising.
So far, Kickstarter has been responsible for most of the successful crowdfunded projects, and earlier this year was the platform-of-choice for David Eagleman - an American neuroscientist - who required $40,000 to get his prototype ‘human perception’ vest up and running.
The Washington Post claims that ‘the high-tech vest will help us expand human perception beyond the limits of our five senses’ [http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/crowdfunding-propels-scientific-research/2015/01/18/c1937690-9758-11e4-8005-1924ede3e54a_story.html]. Eagleman - who risks angering those in academia by engaging in TED talks and social media - raised $47,285 on Kickstarter, above what he’d originally pitched for. It’s been claimed that academics, particularly those within science, see public engagement as counterproductive and purely a way for self-important scientists to reach the notoriety of people like Briane Greene and Stephen Hawking.
Regardless of the industry’s views, Eagleman’s venture attracted considerable investment and has subsequently allowed him to put his ideas into practice. But the naysayers aren’t completely wrong. Thanks to Eagleman’s high profile - he’s going to present an upcoming television series on PBS called ‘The Brain’ - his reputation, to a degree, goes before him. His project - which led with the tagline ‘help our neuroscientific project to expand human perception’ - was also eye-catching and easily explainable, something not possible for other scientific proposals. Projects which can’t call on a notable leader, for example, might still struggle.
Outside of science, crowdfunding has contributed to other important technological developments. DIY robots, 3D printers and drones have all benefitted from Kickstarter-led campaigns for example. It’s impact on research and development (R+D), however, remains limited, with companies primarily using the site pre-market, not pre-product. This is mainly because it’s difficult to sell an idea to investors without something that’s tangible. According to professor Raghu Rau, Director of Research and Head of Finance & Accounting at the Cambridge Judge Business School, however, the next three or four years should see crowdfunding become more compatible with R+D.
In an interview in City A.M he states;
‘The lending instruments available on platforms will become more complicated, he says, with some probably a combination of several – which will allow for the more complex risk profiles associated with R&D.’
There are already signs of progress. In Germany, crowdfunding is being used to fund patent applications - up to 40 at a time - with the hope that the one or two which are successful bring in considerable returns. Crowdfunding, however, must become a solution for pre-product projects if it’s to have a real impact on technological development. Despite this, the recent events in Germany do show that there’s real potential for it to do just that.