Europe′s scientists experiment with crowdfunding | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 07.04.2016
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Europe's scientists experiment with crowdfunding

A drug that can treat pedophiles? Swedish researchers aim to find it with the help of crowdfunding. It's a small market, but it can help scientists get projects off the ground or raise extra funds.

Priotab, a project led by Christoffer Rahm at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, hopes to develop a preventative drug treatment that would lower sexual desire in pedophiles and, thus, prevent abuse.

He has secured some Swedish funds for the trials, but to pay for full-scale clinical trials, he is hoping to raise 38,000 pounds (47,100 euros, $53,500) via UK crowdfunding site Walacea.

Crowdfunding in science is a relatively new phenomenon. Few crowdfunding platforms focus exclusively on scientific projects. While it's nowhere near the big general crowdfunding players like Kickstarter, Startnext or Ulule, Walacea is still one of the biggest venture of its kind in the UK, and in Europe as a whole.

Reward-based crowdfunding

Walacea is rewards- and donations-based, with money pledged by individuals and small groups. Perks like special seminars or meeting scientists involved in the research they fund are typical examples of "rewards."

Founder Natalie Jonk calls them "unique experiences" that ordinary people would not normally have access to, but she says it also serves to "open up communication channels between scientists and the public," so scientists can find new funders by interacting with the public.

The kind of projects Walacea and others fund often raise less than $10,000 and while that may seem like small fry to many, it does help scientists, like Rahm from Sweden, secure additional funds for a project.

Crowdfunding can also give young scientists and postdocs, who often rely on professors to approve projects, another avenue to explore a specific angle in their chosen field.

"There are a lot of brilliant young minds that are being held back by the current structure," Jonk told DW. "Crowdfunding is a great way of giving scientists who want to explore this avenue a new way of raising funds," adding that it is not designed to replace government or other funding, which is still crucial to research and development across Europe and elsewhere.

In Europe, the UK and France lead the crowdfunding market generally, but German platform claims to be the first crowdfunding platform in Europe geared towards science projects.

It is part of "Wissenschaft im Dialog" ("dialogue through science"), or WiD, an initiative funded by research organizations and some government money.

It typically helps fund small projects. One researcher raised enough money to show how horse manure can be used in biogas plants in a commercially viable way.

But it also helps students get projects off the ground. One group of pupils from the south-western town of Ravensburg were able to send off plant seedlings to the International Space Station (ISS) to find out more about how plants grow in space.

"We see it as an experiment," Markus Weisskopf, executive director at WiD, told DW. "The projects you take are not that big, so the risk you take funding them is not that big."

He stresses that of the people who pledge funds to certain projects, many are experts and, by giving their input and asking questions, "make the project better."

Like Jonk, he emphasizes the flexibility and opportunities crowdfunding offers to, for example, researchers who need money to fund an additional angle to a particular research project.

"You're much more flexible and quicker with crowdfunding than a funding organization…and you can use the money whatever you want to use it for," he told DW.

Jonk says she wants to create "role models" in science, by buildimg a "community" that allows researchers some freedom in choosing projects "that are meaningful to society."

She believes rewards-based crowdfunding could even eventually be an alternative to traditional charities, whose members are aging rapidly.

"The crowdfunding donor base is a much younger audience, so I can see crowdfunding picking up some of the charity work eventually," Jonk told DW.

EU study commissioned

The European Commission is also keen to explore the opportunities of crowdfunding for research and development in the bloc. It has commissioned the "Crowdfunding4Innovation" study, which will look at ways to open up the market for crowdfunding in science.

The study, which is expected to be completed by the end of the year, will provide the Commission with information "on what to do next to enable crowdfunding to get more funds into R&D," Oliver Gaijda, executive director of the European Crowdfunding Network, told DW.

He stresses, though, that the study's focus will be on marketplace lending, also known as equity or peer-to-peer crowdfunding, rather than small-scale rewards-based crowdfunding, as it can raise more money. "Equity-based crowdfunding is of particular interest to the Commission, especially with regard to industry," Gaijda told DW.

"We have very little venture capital or funds from business angels, those areas really haven't progressed in the last 10 years…there just isn't enough money for companies or researchers who deal with very complex technologies, for example, in growth sectors."

The Commission is hoping that crowdfunding can help fill that funding gap. Crowdfunding bellwethers, like Kickstarter and Germany's Startnext, already pick up some of the science-oriented projects and are likely to continue to raise substantial funds. The likes of Walacea and Sciencestarter are likely to sit alongside their bigger peers, focusing on small projects and, thus, giving scientists some breathing space to focus on potentially innovative research.

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