A few weeks ago I was approached by the folks at Petridish.org, asking if I’d be interested in doing a post on their science crowdfunding site.  I’m fascinated by crowdfunding and think that it has a huge amount of potential, both as a means of funding science, and as a means of incentivizing science communication – in a world where the public funds your research directly, you have much more incentive to communicate with them about your work.  Since I didn’t know much about Petridish.org at the time, I asked if one of their founders would be interested in doing an interview with me instead.  Below is that interview, with Petridish.org co-founder Matt Salzberg.  More on Matt can be found at the bottom of this post.

I have yet to try crowdfunding myself, but if you have any experience with Petridish or any other crowdfunding platform (or thoughts on which platform(s) will eventually succeed and pull away from the rest of the pack) I’d love to hear about it in the comments.


1. Simple question: what is crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding reflects the power of the internet to pool the collective actions of many small participants to make a larger project happen. In the case of Petridish.org, we help scientists and researchers raise funding for their projects from people who are passionate about their work.


2. Could you describe what Petridish.org is, and how it works?

Petridish.org is the largest crowdfunding website devoted entirely to science and research funding. Researchers post materials about a project they want to launch, and contributors on our site can donate to those projects in exchange for rewards and other tokens of appreciation.


Typically, researchers set a goal and a deadline by which they hope to raise the money. If they reach the goal by the deadline, then the project is successfully funded. If they don’t reach the goal, no money changes hands.


3. What gave you the idea for starting Petridish.org?

Before starting Petridish.org, I worked at a large venture capital firm and became interested in the power of the internet to transform the way things were funded. One website, kickstarter had become very successful in raising money for art and creative projects. I wanted to bring that power to science funding, which is an interest area of mine and is an area that desperately needs new models for funding.


4. Can you give a rough idea of the % of projects that have been funded so far, and how much funding has been received by researchers (either the average amount or the total across all projects)?

We’ve done significantly in excess of $100,000 of transaction volume since launching earlier this year. 80% of all of our projects have been successfully funded.


5. There have been a number of crowdfunding science websites in the past few years (Microryza, SciFlies.org, Science Donors, MyProjects, Open Genius, #SciFund Challenge, etc), many of which seem to have trouble taking off. What makes Petridish.org different and/or more likely to succeed?

There are a few things that make us different. First, we’ve focused on building a high quality, fun web experience for contributors. Aside from our focus on design, we hand select only the most interesting and impactful projects to feature on our site, including those with great videos, pictures and rewards. Many of the existing sites focus exclusively on the experience for the scientist raising money– we cater to both sides of the marketplace.


Second, we only do “all or nothing” funding. We do this because it protects the scientist from having to do a project without sufficient funding and it protects contributors who wouldn’t want to donate to a project that doesn’t have enough funding to go through. It also encourages people to really pull together to promote a project, since a project won’t happen without enlisting the support of others as well.


6. The crowdfunding science initiative that I’ve been most impressed with is the #SciFund Challenge, since they’ve partnered with Rockethub to bring their projects to a wider audience, and also done a lot of work to promote science communication. How are you bringing people to Petridish.org to see the projects that are listed there?

We do extensive web marketing activities to help the projects get funded. We have presences on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest, which helps drive people to our projects. We also have a weekly newsletter that sends the projects to thousands of our supporters. And we’re building relationships with larger media companies for regular press coverage. The all or nothing mechanism also really incentivizes people to share the projects and enlist their friends to help the project get funded.

Because of these activities, we have seen that a very high proportion of contributors on our site are contributing on a repeated basis to multiple projects.


7. What types of projects are best suited to crowdfunding? How can you convince people to fund your project if it’s not “sexy”?

The best projects are those with passionate researchers behind them. The enthusiasm the creator has is really what connects with contributors (in addition, of course, to the content of the project). We are also currently focusing on projects that require less than $50,000 and that have great visual components. We hope to expand to be doing $100k+ projects soon.


8. What increases the likelihood of success for individual researchers hoping to convince the public to support their work through a site like Petridish.org?

Being authentic is really important. Beyond that, having a compelling story with a project that could make make a large impact is the other key.


9. Any idea on the type of person who donates to these research projects? Is it other researchers, or the general public? How do they find out about the research?

We’ve seen contributions from a wide variety of sources. Professional researchers contribute, amateur science-lovers contribute, friends and family contribute. Many of the contributors are driven in through our social media presences and newsletter.


We also have many projects that just strike chords with total strangers. For instance, we have a project right now about early detection of cancer with laser ultrasound, that appeals to the millions of people whose lives have been impacted by cancer in some way. We also had a project by a Harvard astronomer who is searching for the first exomoon that struck a chord with a large community of astronomers and sci-fi enthusiasts on the internet as well.


10. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

We’re currently looking for more great research projects to feature on our website, so if you are a scientist who needs funding or just wants to share your research with the public, we’d love to see you apply at www.petridish.org!


About Matt Salzberg: Before founding Petridish.org, Matt was a venture capital investor at Bessemer, where he focused on the mobile, digital-media and software sectors and was involved with investments in Intucell, Millennial Media, and several others. Matt holds a B.A. in economics, summa cum laude , and an MBA, both from Harvard University. While pursuing his undergraduate degree, Matt served on the Board of Directors of Harvard Student Agencies and ran its laundry, dry-cleaning and linen-rental business, winning Manager of the Year for turning around its performance. His favorite research projects on Petridsh include Astronomy, Archaeology, Marine Biology and Economics. (Source)