Observations Patient Involvement

Crowdfunding: from startup businesses to startup science

BMJ 2015; 350 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h18 (Published 14 January 2015) Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h18
  1. Gregory C Makris, specialty registrar, Academic Radiology Department, Cambridge University Hospitals, UK
  1. gm482{at}cam.ac.uk

Social media and “crowdfunding” can boost patient and public involvement in biomedical research

Despite the recent reported rise in the overall success rate of major research grant applications in the United Kingdom, which now stands at around 28%,1 it is still a big challenge for junior investigators to secure the funds to support pilot research for innovative and sometimes high risk ideas. Pilot research is needed to provide preliminary support to a hypothesis before a researcher can start considering applying to major funding bodies. It is understandable that under the current financial climate not all ideas can be funded. However, with so many burning health issues, can we really afford to turn down almost 70% of all research proposals? Have we really used all the available resources?

Translating success from business to bioscience

Crowdfunding started in the United States as a way to fund innovative startup businesses that otherwise could not have secured financing to launch their product. In six years the most successful crowdfunding platform for businesses has raised more than $1bn for more than 76 000 projects, with donations coming from more than two million repeat backers and a success rate of almost 40%.2 Reward and donation based crowdfunding are making their first steps in the UK, and their value was estimated by a 2014 report from the charity Nesta (formerly the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts) to be around £28m, with an annual growth rate of more than 70%.3 More impressively, this growth rate has occurred when only 58% of the general public are aware of it and when only 14% have actually used it. The potential for even further growth is clear, as are the possible scientific applications.

Encouraging public involvement

The Nesta report described two other “side effects” of the crowdfunding campaigns: 27% of the donors had also offered to help or volunteer with the projects they backed, and 29% gave feedback or advice on the campaign.3 These effects have significant potential and show us a new way to engage with the public to recruit volunteers or get feedback on our research endeavours. The most successful crowdfunding campaigns are those that are easy to understand and that use all modern communication technologies, such as video, animation, and podcasts, and, of course, that draw on the power of social media.2 It is estimated that by 2017 the global social media network will total 2.55 billion people, with the UK being foremost in Europe in social networking. By that time an estimated 35% of the UK population will be using a social network on any device at least once a month.4 It is clear that researchers cannot ignore this potential online audience.

A recent systematic analysis of patient and public involvement in a group of randomised controlled trials that received funding from the health technology assessment programme of the UK National Institute for Health Research showed that only half the applications considered patient and public involvement in the early stages of the development of the research and that only a quarter had such involvement in the development of the outline application itself.5 The most commonly cited challenges, a recent review of the literature indicated, were to do with logistics (extra time and funding needed for patient and public involvement) and, the main worry, a tokenistic approach.6 Two examples of patient and public involvement initiatives, the Nano-dialogue and Wellbeing dialogue projects, supported by Sciencewise.co.uk, had a total cost of more than half a million pounds in 2007.7 However, potential cost should not be a reason for not involving patients and the public, which should be at the core of what scientists do. And it is particularly important in the biomedical field, where every year more than half a million people around the UK take part in clinical trials.8 They deserve to know how research is being performed and what the implications are, and it is our responsibility to find the most cost effective way to get them as closely involved in this process as possible.

Using media—and social media

In December 2012 Deakin University in Victoria, Australia, agreed to create an opportunity for crowdfunding for a selection of scientific projects. The “Research My World” initiative was launched to the public in 2013 with eight projects. In a few months the initiative raised almost $A50 000 (£27 000; €34 000; $US40 000) and generated 200 media stories and a cumulative audience of more than 1.4 million, with more than 700 individual donors supporting the projects.9 Meanwhile, in the United States, over three rounds (during almost four months) the SciFund platform raised $US252 811, with contributions and involvement from 3904 donors, to fund 159 projects.10 These two case examples show that a simple online campaign that uses social media can be effective in attracting major public involvement, thus raising the profile of the participating researchers and a significant amount of funding to kickstart research.

Organisations such as the National Institute for Health Research, through its INVOLVE advisory group (www.invo.org.uk), are doing excellent work in promoting the need for better and more active patient and public involvement in biomedical research, and many local patients’ groups are working in the same direction. However, this does not mean that we, the health professionals and researchers, should not explore other routes to promote research and supplement the hard work of the patient and public involvement officers around the UK. Crowdfunding and modern communication technologies might help to bring people closer to science and allow them to contribute in the best way they see fit.


Cite this as: BMJ 2015;350:h18


  • Competing interests: Founder of the StartUpScience crowdfunding platform.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not peer reviewed.


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