From 2008 to 2014 the United States investedaround $820 million in synthetic biology research. About 0.07% as much money went to synthetic biology projects through crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo, or Experiment.com. Of those crowdfunded projects, the Kickstarter campaign called Glowing Plants was by far the most well-funded. Glowing Plants, like its name suggests, aimed to genetically engineer plants that could light up using the genes from fireflies. After a tenuous four years of alternative funding and backup plans, the goal of making a brightly glowing plant is officially shelved.The question is whether Glowing Plants will continue to be the high mark for crowding funding of synthetic biology or whether there are future successes out there.
In 2013, Antony Evans got well overseven times his $65,000crowdfunding goal to engineer plants that light up. The pitchlaid out an ambitious plan for howthis fun glowing plant fit into the promise of synthetic biology. It was nothing like a technical grant proposal that a synthetic biology researcher usually submits for funding. It was selling the idea of a synthetic biology product that you could put on your desk. A fun novelty item thats more play than work. Unfortunately, technical hurdles exist even for playful ideas.
If you go back through Glowing Plants updates you can track the arc of theirambitions.
April 23, 2013: Glow Plants project launches on Kickstarter
April 30, 2013: How bright can we make our plants grow?
August 13, 2014: accepted by Y combinator! They got to present at the tech accelerators Demo Day and pitch investors.
April 10, 2015: Should we switch plant species
May 20, 2016: Help us build momentum on WeFunder! This platformed helped to raise another $250,000 for the project with donors buying small shares
August 3, 1016: 5 out of 6 genes successfully integrated into a plant
April 18, 2017: Stopping work on the Glowing Plant Contamination in the fragrant moss strains caused the team to downsize to still afford to get the planned shipments out. With the financial hit, their plan to put revenue toward the glowing plant research wasultimately halted. They conclude that that despite that failure the project can still leave a positive legacy in inspiring people to learn more about synthetic biology and its benefits and hopefully one day someone does finally make a Glowing Plant.
There has been plenty of media attention for both the initial hype of Glowing Plants and the eventual decline into unrealized ideas, but that doesnt mean there wont be other high profile uses of crowdfunding for synthetic biology.
Synthetic biology still makes it way onto a lot of the popular crowdfunding sites that have science:Kickstarter,Indiegogo,WeFunder andexperiment.com. Yet none of these campaigns have reacher the financial backing that Glowing Plants got. Typical synthetic biology crowdfunding is raising a few thousand dollars and is primarily supporting educational activities.
The most common kind of crowdfunding success involves the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition that gives student the chance to work on and present their own synthetic biology projects.Some successfullyfunded research projects include $3001 forDNA memory,$2500 fordetecting tuberculosis,$2189 for paper based pathogen detection, $1572 for detection of expired oxytocin medication,and $2120 for a high-school team studying crosstalk between neighboringgenes. Typical federal grants for synthetic biology research on the orders of hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars over a few years.
Synthetic biology research is still expensive. For asynthetic biology product to be fundedand hit the market takes an enormous amount of money. While iGEM teams can count student learning itself as a victory, any crowdfunding that promises a deliverable product will be in trouble. For instance, experiment.com has a collection of iGEM projects being funded.
Glowing Plants creator, Antony Evans, wrote a piece on equity crowdfunding and explained why the inherent tension between promising rewards and the challenges and uncertainties of biological research makes Kickstarter a bad model for scientific research. He seesequity crowdfunding as a more powerful tool in the biotech space. This newly legal mechanism called title III equity crowdfunding allows early stage startups to raise money from any ordinary person in return for shares in the company.
But no crowdfunding mechanism brings along the advisory input one would expect from a traditionalinvestor. Good investors usually bring some expertise, guidance, or connections. Distributed funding is unlikely to bring that human capital. Even if some of your investors have those capabilities, none will have enough influence in the company to make an impact.
Synthetic biology will continue to get cheaper as DNA synthesis costs drop and the DIYBio community matures. That said, there are still many research projects that seem poorly suited for crowdfunding.
Ultimately, I think synthetic biology will get some victories in the crowdfunding arena. Its unlikely to be a cure for cancer or global warming, but hopefully theres a fun idea out there that can be made possible with small dollar backers and the power of biology.
See the appendix to the U.S. Trends in Synthetic Biology Research from the Wilson Center to calculate synthetic biology funding from 2008-2014.
Atlantic: Whatever Happened to the Glowing Plant Kickstarter?
MIT Tech Review: Why Kickstarters Glowing Plant Left Backers in the Dark
Synbiobeta: Review of RevBios Crowd Funding Campaign
Top Sites for Crowdfunding Scientific Research
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