Science Breaks Free
Startup Portrait #1: Microryza
Startup Portraits is an ongoing series of visual stories about the founders of Bay Area startups, their visions, and what they're learning. In early September I met with the Microryza team at their office/home in San Francisco’s SOMA neighborhood. For the interview below, I spoke with team members Cindy Wu and Stephanie Halamek. I’ve edited the conversation for length and clarity. Learn more about Microryza: Company homepage, origins story, AngelList profile.
What does Microryza Make?
Microryza is a platform for discovering, funding, and experiencing new scientific discoveries.
What’s the most delightful experience a user can have with Microryza?
For the researcher it’s when they reach 100% of their funding goal. Also, when you get your first donation from someone you don't know. A stranger who has never heard of you before and has no idea who you are, and they want to fund you? That feels good. For donors, a lot of them don't know what to expect, but when they get a really cool update, they start to see the value of the research.
If Microryza succeeds, how will the world be different?
Science will play a bigger role in people’s lives. Right now science is really closed off to people outside of academia. You're going to see scientists sharing research more openly, and see people who aren't in academia pursuing research projects. The science stack is going to look dramatically different in the next year. Now you can get funding through crowdfunding, you can outsource your projects through websites like Science Exchange, you can buy materials cheaply online. Scientists care more and more about open access publishing. However, lots of scientists don't know about these tools, but as they do, how research ideas come to fruition is going to change dramatically.
What behavior are you trying to encourage that your users are most resistant to?
Sharing. Researchers have been locked into a traditional method. You apply for grant funding. It’s a very regimented process. You use very technical language. With crowdfunding you have to sell yourself—it’s a behavior you don't learn in school. In academia you need to publish papers, but that’s very different than sharing your lab notes with the general public. Eventually, sharing your research and having an open lab notebook will be part of science.
What’s the most unexpected lesson you've learned about your users?
Very few researches are willing to fight the system. They want to get university approval before anything happens. But usually there’s no policy for this kind of funding. We encourage them to launch their project and we'll figure it out as we go, but that’s not something they're used to. They're used to having all the paperwork settled before they even start.
What’s one thing you guys did right that, in retrospect, you almost didn't do?
Focusing on launching projects. Before YC we took the approach of not launching projects until they had passed a proposal process and were perfect. During YC we removed all the bottlenecks and made it extremely simple for anyone to start a project. We had launched just five all of last summer, but once we put the focus on acquiring projects, we doubled the number of new projects every week up until demo day.Changing that mentality was really important for us.
Has that effected a cultural shift with you guys?
It made us think about startups and growth differently. I think you get different advice from people who have built something out of nothing. When you compare that advice to what you get from an executive at a large company or university, it’s completely different. They'll ask you to think about tax receipts and peer review. Those are luxury problems once you have a marketplace up and running. First you have to create problems.
If you had to cut one feature from the product, what would it be?
We wouldn't cut anything. We might heavily change some things though. Right now it’s hard to discover projects. We have project categories and a search bar, but it can be hard for people to find something that interests them. Generally though, we only build things that are necessary. We do things manually until they’re really, really painful, and then we'll build something.
What’s your biggest need right now? How can readers help?
We want people to care about science and then do something about it. A lot of people say, “I really care about oceans, or I really care about the rainforest,” but they don't do anything about it. Funding research is one way to do something about it. For us, our mission is to fund science that moves us forward. We want people to be engaged in the scientific process and take action. Knowledge should be open and be shared. This is about science for the people, by the people, and we're giving readers an opportunity to be a part of this movement.
Quick note: This is the very first piece in my Startup Portraits project. Microryza was the first company I wanted to photograph, and through no shortage of good timing and good will, their story is the first I’ve finished editing. Kudos to the team for trusting me with this.