Beyond Backers: Lessons from a Crowdfunded Researcher

Maureen Muldavin, pictured center, leading one of Open Insulin’s meetings (Credit: Counter Culture Labs)

Last time the founders of Experiment and Walacea shared their insight on how to reach crowdfunding goals. In this interview I explore some of the lessons learned by Maureen Muldavin of the Open Insulin project. After concluding a successful campaign on Experiment’s platform, her group is working to jump start the market for generic insulin by creating an open-source production method.

Crowdfunded research is still in its early stages, with few results that have had a vast societal impact. However, the Open Insulin project is working to change this. As a backer would, we’ll first ask what the group is and see how they establish backer confidence through their Experiment page. Then I’ll share my conversation with the group’s project manager, Maureen Muldavin. A biohacker and citizen scientist, Maureen shares some of the things she’s learned along the way.

Turning to Open Insulin’s page we’ll be focusing on the Overview that all backers encounter after opening a project in Experiment’s Discovery queue.

Tile as it appears in the Discovery queue of Experiment.
“A team of biohackers is developing the first open source protocol to produce insulin simply and economically. Our work may serve as a basis for generic production of this life-saving drug and provide a firmer foundation for continued research into improved versions of insulin.”

Their goal is to make insulin more accessible and affordable. There isn’t mountains of jargon to go through and specifics on each reagent they’ll use. They keep their communications concise, using strong adjectives to let the reader know what’s at stake and the impact their work can have.

To build further context for the research, they connect it with recent high visibility publications, in this case from the New England Journal of Medicine. As they enable the creation of a generic insulin their research can be the origin of something that impacts the global economy. When you want to connect with a reader, this method of referencing current research can show your project is relevant enough to already justify investment.

When it comes to their budget, they emphasize they emphasize their volunteer labor and why using external services is necessary. As we move into their Experiment budget graphic, they keep their item descriptions simple, breaking down by construct.

When they calculate out this cost it also makes it much easier for them to determine the cost of any subsequent constructs. This break down of costs is similar to the price per sample seen in other projects and can be a good starting point for your own project’s budget.

The remainder of the Overview page focuses on some of the key endorsements and people behind making Open Insulin a reality. Their descriptions, while good for the campaign page, won’t tell the full story of how the group came together, or the issues they’ve faced. For that I began my conversation with Maureen. Discussing the project’s inception she told me about the community lab space that has brought the initial members together.

A Place to Call Home

Among the first needs of any research group is an equipped facility where the environment can be controlled. For Open Insulin, this space was found at Counter Culture Labs in Oakland, CA. Typically the cost of using such facilities would restrict access to full-time research groups. However, by taking cues from the hackerspaces of the 90’s, dozens of community labs like CCL have sprung up to make the tools of life scientists available to a broader audience.

Counter Culture’s space at the Omni Commons in Oakland, CA (Credit: Counter Culture Labs)

Many of these labs share a commitment to the free flow of knowledge as established at an international congress of Do-It-Yourself biology figures. Though their facilities do not resemble the multi-million dollar buildings of major universities and companies, they hold a commitment to opening access to advanced experimentation in common.

They’re found in warehouses, banks, and office buildings, staffed by volunteers who use their time and effort to create an environment where scientists can have ownership over their projects and careers. Often times they operate through a membership system where joining gives you access to needed expertise and equipment.

BioFoundry’s warehouse location in Australia. Image Credit: Google Street View.

If you’re looking for a home for your project you can explore local options at DIYbio.org. As these spaces are often driven by donations and crowdfunding, they can offer invaluable guidance in getting your campaign off the ground. As we continued our discussion I asked Maureen about the CCL members who took Open Insulin from concept to reality.

Anthony Di Franco, a type I diabetic and CCL cofounder, developed the project with fellow cofounder Ryan Bethencourt. Starting with the idea of creating insulin that could be “home-brewed’ they worked back to find what issues with current insulin they could take action on. Since the processes for modern insulin production are complex and frequently fall under patent protection, they settled on creating a simpler and more cost-effective solution that could be open-sourced. From this the two hoped they could sufficiently encourage drug makers to adopt their “generic” insulin, with the immediate effect of lowering diabetics cost-of-living.

Upon the publishing of the article “Why Is There No Generic Insulin?” Open Insulin’s group was formally called together. As Anthony took over much of the organizational work for the project, Ryan provides support through the expansive professional network he’s created as program manager of Indie Bio.

When Maureen became project manager she had relatively little lab experience and joined CCL only a month before the crowdfunding campaign began. As she’s grown at Counter Culture though, she’s helped facilitate communication between the team and the community, along with keeping the project on schedule.

Creating a Plan of Action

There are several questions we’ve seen Open Insulin answer throughout its development. You can ask yourself such questions to understand what resources are available or needed for your project. As you try to set milestones for your project you might ask yourself:

· What is actionable?

· Why is this research needed?

· Is the missing information a series of measurements, or a qualitative observation?

· What experimentation and equipment is needed to attain that information?

· What communities care about the research?

The SMART criteria for setting objectives. Image Credit: http://alejandrawilkersonfitness.com/smart-goals/

These sorts of questions can help in understanding what order issues need to be addressed in and keep major delays from occurring. As you create goals from these answers you can also check to see what areas can be improved or what questions may still need answering for future iterations. Doing this can also give you clear events that can be arranged into your project timeline. As you answer you’ll also begin to understand the communities of backers or scientists who can help support the project.

Building the Team

One of the reasons I chose to cover Open Insulin is the track record its team members share. Before Open Insulin, the teams at CCL and Sunnyvale’s own BioCurious fundraised on IndieGogo to raise over $37,000 towards creating real vegan cheese. That collaboration won the “Best Community Science Project” award at iGEM in 2014. In fact, one of Open Insulin’s first mentions was on a Kickstarter campaign that was raising funds for new equipment at CCL.

Despite Counter Culture’s groups using more mainstream platforms in prior projects, Open Insulin decided on Experiment. As Maureen put it, this decision was to save money on providing physical rewards and to use a site that emphasized research.

Image Credit: CCL Kickstarter

This decision and more was showcased in a press release the group made on rawscience.tv’s website. At the time they also announced the project would partner with Arcturus Biocloud, a consumer lab that has helped them to produce a working genetic construct. For designing this construct they’d also take on the help of Josiah Zayner. A biohacking evangelist and visiting NASA research fellow, Zayner also has the vision of making synthetic biology accessible to the public.

The point of spotlighting a few of these team members is to help you see some of the backgrounds that can come together in these projects. While many campaigns can begin with one or two people and an idea, the path to execution and the opportunity to have ownership over their work can draw others in. By remaining open to these collaborations, you can reduce gaps in your campaign’s knowledge base. However, when working with such a large group you can find yourself dealing with people egos. By having a well-defined plan of action though, members can leave these behind and stay focused on what’s important.

When I asked Maureen what it was like to be a liaison to so many different people she had this to share. Through everyone’s continued dedication, they’re able to avoid many of the small delays that can add up to major setbacks. People aren’t always familiar but there is a culture where no one needs to be shy about asking for help and this makes it easier to continually renew your personal motivation.

Finding Traction

When asked what it was like to take on a leadership position in these campaigns, Maureen said the work had a steep learning curve initially, but remained manageable at a few hours per week. When she first started communicating with backers, Twitter and Experiment’s campaign discussion page helped her get used to the role.

Some of the news outlets that have featured Open Insulin

Seeking out additional press for the campaign, Maureen interviewed with Popular Science to talk about how the project had developed in the last few months. Thoroughness, along with the communities they tapped from building their team, helped them achieve their first funding goal of $6000 within a couple weeks of the campaign’s start. As awareness of their campaign spread globally, the team continued their media press to try and achieve their stretch goal.

Though the campaign has finished, Maureen says the actual research and organizational details of the project still take a couple hours of work each week. Being a board member at CCL, she attends regular meetings, in addition to the time actually spent in the wet lab. As she expands her skills and continues to become more involved with the lab, I asked her what she hoped to achieve as a citizen scientist. Like many of CCL’s members, Maureen is excited to show these spaces can make meaningful contributions to the world. While Open Insulin is a start, she hopes to share what she’s learned through CCL’s newly minted “Biohacker Boot Camp.” Beyond that, she wants to help scientists move between biohacker spaces the way Counter Culture and BioCurious members do.

As we wrapped up our conversation I was struck by the modesty Maureen displays. She’s creating a significant impact on the field, all without any prior formal life sciences background. By reaching out to others within the DIYbio network and San Francisco biohacker groups she’s able to find the answers or expertise she needs to keep the project moving forward.

In the last article, I heard about creating a community of financial backers around your work. By a similar fashion I now see the importance of expanding that group to include the many people that can share your cause. While financing can ensure a project’s continued existence, it is the passionate individuals who volunteer their expertise and labor that are make the progress tangible.

For upcoming articles, I’ll be exploring the potential that equity crowdfunding and incubator programs have to take proof-of-concept experiments into an actual business. For the equity crowdfunding portion we’ll be joined by Richard Leyland, CMO of the Syndicate Room platform that is led by investors. For incubator programs, we’ll examine the differences seen between groups like San Francisco’s Indie Bio, Johnson and Johnson’s national network of JLabs, and university-led programs like the University of California’s QB3 program.