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Alums Launch New Model for Research Funding

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Through crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, the public can fund all sorts of promising projects, from anti-bullying campaigns to independent films.  Recognizing the popularity of such microfinance platforms, A&S alumni Denny Luan and Cindy Wu wondered, “Why isn’t there one for scientific research?”

Then they stopped wondering and created the platform themselves.

Cindy Wu and Denny Luan

"At Microryza, we fund the long-tail of ideas, the outliers that matter," says Cindy Wu, above with Denny Luan.

Luan and Wu, along with fellow Husky alum Skander Mzali (MS, Aerospace Engineering, 2010), are the founders of Microryza, a funding platform for research. [Editor's udpate: The platform was renamed Experiment in February 2014.] Since its launch in April 2012, Microryza has funded more than 80 research projects— including 14 from the University of Washington—and has raised more than $600,000.

“Today research funding is broken,” says Wu. “The funders are so conservative, they only fund the most obvious ideas. At Microryza we fund the long-tail of ideas, the outliers that matter. Researchers from Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and over 50 other top universities are choosing to use Microryza.”

Not surprisingly, Luan (BS, Biochemistry; BA, Economics, 2011) and Wu (BS, Biology, 2011) met through undergraduate research. Both participated on the UW team for the 2010 and 2011 iGEM competitions, through which undergraduates from around the world design and build biological systems. The UW 2011 team took first place in the iGEM world championships—the first U.S. team ever to win the competition. 

The iGEM experience would later play a role in Wu and Luan’s decision to start Microryza.  Wu explains that the 2010 team built an enzyme to treat anthrax bacteria. Six months later, while working in the lab of bioengineering professor James Bryers, Wu wanted to test the enzyme as an antibiotic for more common bacterial infections. “When I asked Dr. Bryers where I could apply for a grant, he told me that the system doesn’t fund 22-year-olds with no track record,” recalls Wu.

What we've created turns everyone with a credit card into a modern day patron of science.

Bryers, who believed in Wu and the project, supported the side project through one of his grants. But the experience motivated Wu and Luan to take a hard look at how research is funded.  “After Cindy’s experience, it struck me that there must be some way for the general public to directly fund and enable research that it cares about,” says Luan, who was already involved in Seattle’s microfinance community through his economics major. “When you think about it, with all the things that the internet has allowed from social media to citizen science, it's just surprising that no one else had already done science crowdfunding.”

Microryza has struck a chord with both the research community and the general public. It has garnered coverage in The Boston Globe, The Washington Times, The Seattle Times, Fast Company, Nature, and other media outlets. More than 1,000 scientists have posted projects on the site, which remains “very similar to what we envisioned back when we started,” says Wu.

2011 iGEM team

The UW's 2011 iGEM team poses with the brick awarded to them as world champions. The brick is a symbol of the molecular components that are used in synthetic biology. Media credit: David Appleyard/iGEM

Wu spends her days communicating with researchers and donors while Luan and Mzali focus on building the product.  For Luan, the biggest surprise has been how often he applies skills gained through his undergraduate research.  “Whether it's forming new partnerships with universities or building product features that move the needle, we've created a culture of rapid experimentation,” says Luan.  “We're constantly learning new things. My foundation in the scientific process has helped create a rigorous process for testing new ideas.”

Luan’s economics background has also come in handy—particularly courses he took on the behavioral frameworks for microfinance and similar systems. “Early on in my undergraduate career, I worried that I would never be able to reconcile my economics degree with my passion for the biological sciences,” says Luan. “I'm incredibly lucky and fortunate that now I'm able to actively use my economics background to help us address scientific and research problems.  To be honest, I never expected that I would end up using both of my passions at the same time.”

Before Microryza, Wu and Luan had planned to earn advanced degrees in the sciences. Wu was already accepted into several PhD programs before Microryza led her in a different direction.  Now they see a different role for themselves in the scientific community.

“If we weren’t doing Microryza, we would definitely be in graduate school getting our PhDs in today’s difficult system,” says Luan. “But instead we feel that we have the chance to have a bigger impact and improve the outcomes for scientists around the world.”

Adds Wu, “The way the research system works is going through some major shifts right now, and we hope to shape a lot of the changes. At Microryza, we are democratizing research and creating the future today. What we've created turns everyone with a credit card into a modern-day patron of science.”

To learn more about Microryza (now renamed Experiment) or to view projects seeking funding, visit experiment.com.