Deakin’s crowdfunding success

Sophie counting out Chinese money in to piles of 100 Yuan bills

After the heist, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Over the last two months, I’ve been watching Deakin University’s venture into crowdfunding research. It has been an exciting and very successful initiative.

Deakin University is based in Australia, so they worked with an Australian crowdfunding platform, Pozible, to make this happen. In May-June 2013, Deakin ran eight funding campaigns through Pozible.

Six of the eight exceeded their targets!

Pozible is an ‘all or nothing’ crowdfunding platform, so the projects that didn’t succeed won’t get anything at all. The others will get about 93% of the contributions after transaction fees are deducted.

Here is a breakdown of the numbers. The two projects marked ‘N/A’ did not reach their target, and so raised no funds at all.

Table 1: Deakin University fundraising on Pozible, June 2013.
Project title Raised Supporters $ / person
‘Caching’ in on game play N/A 42 N/A
Healthy gigglers $12,832 45 $285.16
Mighty maggots v flesh nom bugs $9,970 129 $77.29
Discovering Papua New Guinea’s mountain mammals $21,913 298 $73.53
Retake Melbourne $6,417 68 $94.37
How salty is your seafood? N/A 11 N/A
Would you like seaweed with that? $5,435 88 $61.76
Voyages of discovery $5,005 41 $122.07
Total raised $61,572

I love what Deakin has done! When I saw what they were trying to do, my initial reaction was “Why didn’t I think of that?”. I have been trying to convince individuals at my university to try crowdfunding, without any success. By taking an institutional approach, Deakin were able to get more traction.

I love this because:

  • They have demonstrated that people will fund research projects in this way.
  • They showed that you can raise up to A$20,000 this way.
  • They showed that you can use crowdfunding for different types of research.
  • They showed that you can use crowdfunding for different stages of the research cycle.
  • They allowed people to give funds in return for a tax deduction.
  • They raised over $55,000 (after transaction costs) in new research funding.

Public support

The successful projects had between 40 and 300 supporters. In total approximately 700 members of the public that voted with their wallets to fund research in Australia. That’s wonderful!

I understand that some supporters may not have been giving funds to ‘research’ – they might have been conservationists or photo buffs or parents. To my mind, that doesn’t matter. The projects were clearly badged as research and people funded them. In the end, that’s what matters. Before these projects were funded, it was an open question as to whether Australians would pony up money for research projects like this. These projects show that they will.

Up to $20,000 in funding

One of these projects attracted over A$20,000 in funding. That is decent small grant – you can do something good with A$20,000.

Pozible isn’t Kickstarter. It hasn’t had million-dollar projects. Pozible has had one project that raised A$200,000+ and two that raised $100,000+. Other than that, big projects have mostly been around $60,000 – $75,000. Raising A$20,000 is very impressive in this context.

More importantly, it shows that this source of funding can work for more than A$5,000 – A$10,000 ‘top-up’ grants. I suspect that, as we go forward, the upper bound will creep higher and higher. I’m looking forward to the first Australian research project that raises A$100,000+ in this manner. It may not happen soon, but it will happen.

Different types of research

Deakin have shown that you can use this source of funding for very different types of research:

  • Voyages of discovery is a geographical mapping project.
  • Would you like seaweed with that is a food science project.
  • Retake Melbourne is an art, photography and history project.
  • Mighty maggots v flesh nom bugs is a clinical trial.
  • Healthy gigglers is a public health project.
  • Discovering Papua New Guinea’s mountain mammals is a conservation project.

This broad range of projects is important, as it is easy for people to say, “But it won’t work for my field of research”. These projects show that it can work for very different fields of research.

Different stages of research

Deakin have also shown that this approach will work for different stages of research:

  • Voyages of discovery will buy equipment so that they can extend their work. It looks like they are extending an existing research program.
  • Would you like seaweed with that will replicate international research in an Australian setting.
  • Retake Melbourne will build a tool and then undertake research using that tool. It looks like they are right at the start of their research project.
  • Mighty maggots v flesh nom bugs will replicate research done elsewhere conduct a unique and world-first clinical trial. This is pioneering work. [Please note that they are NOT repeating work attempted elsewhere, as I had written earlier. See comments.]
  • Healthy gigglers will use the funds to implement research findings. They have already done their research and are now seeking to publish new resources.
  • Discovering Papua New Guinea’s mountain mammals are also extending an existing research program by funding fieldwork.

Tax deductions

As part of their partnership with Deakin, Pozible implemented a system whereby people could gain a tax deduction for their contribution. This is important, as it replicates the existing process in Australia in a simple, straightforward way.

Two projects, Voyages of discovery and Healthy gigglers, only provided a tax deduction as their incentive for supporters. This goes against the common wisdom, which says that crowdfunding projects should provide incentives to attract support. However, many research projects find it difficult to imagine what incentive they could offer. Deakin have demonstrated that a tax-deductible donation is enough to attract support.

New research funding

Best of all, Deakin have attracted over A$55,000 (after transaction costs) in new research funding into the Australian university system. I’ve seen internal funding schemes that are smaller than that.

This is not just new money for Deakin. It is new money for the whole system. Deakin didn’t reduce anybody else’s pot by gaining this funding. I like that a lot.

It will be interesting to see whether the people involved think that the return was worth the effort – I suspect that the researchers involved worked hard during May and June to get their projects across the line.

Do you have a favourite example of crowdfunded research? I’m collecting examples for a book chapter – I’d appreciate your input, via this form. Here are some that I like.

Disclaimer: I have no connection with the Deakin projects other than as a supporter. I put about A$10 into each of them and promoted them through the Research Whisperer network and my own personal network.

Addendum

I sent this post to Professor Deb Verhoeven, who organised Deakin’s crowdfunding campaign. She replied:

A couple of heads up clarifications – Deakin also contributed a small amount of “encouragement” funding to projects ($500 matched funding when projects realised their first $500 of public money) and a couple of related Deakin research centres tipped in small amounts of funding as well. These “in-house” pledges are all transparent (you can see them on the site) and recognise that often the biggest stakeholders in crowd funding are those closest to the projects (in more conventional pozible projects this is usually the immediate family and workplace as well). So although I haven’t seen the final financial breakdown yet,  I think it would probably be more accurate to say around $45,000 in new research funding was raised.

Interestingly  – we are still being approached by donors even though the projects have formally closed. So the official figures are a little under-expressed (but they are “official” in the sense they are the funds realised during the campaign period).

Also interesting is that projects received donations from a mix of individual donors and SME’s and other organisations. Again I haven’t sent the full breakdown yet but I gather the balance between these different sources varied from project to project.

The intangible returns were also really really significant – Research My World generated media exposure (traditional and social) for these researchers in ways they could never have anticipated – ABC TV News, major newspapers, all forms of radio, retweets from Stephen Fry and so on. And the uptake in digital capacity for individual researchers has been off the scale.


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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt.

15 Responses to Deakin’s crowdfunding success

  1. amanibell says:

    Great post. I also followed the Deakin Pozible campaigns with interest.

    I think you’re right in that having institutional support is key. Do you think an individual reearcher would need approval from their institution to start a crowd-funding campaign? I can’t imagine it’s something you could just go off and do??

    PS. I love that getting retweets from Stephen Fry is mentioned as indicator of success.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      You sorta can, Amani.

      If you are thinking about doing this, make sure that your university will accept the funds and count them as research income. Work out beforehand what the finance path is to move the funds from Pozible to your university research account.

      Lots of academics are already doing this independently, mainly in art and design disciplines. They aren’t going through their university, so they aren’t getting any brownie points. On the other hand, they don’t need to cope with the university bureaucracy, either. See my post on auspicing for more details of this trade-off.

  2. Reblogged this on James McArdle: Camera/Eye and commented:
    Research Whisperer provides an analysis of the success Deakin has had in crowd-funded research through pilot projects which included Greg Neville’s and my Retake Melbourne (see http://wp.me/p1ZU6J-gH).

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Well done on your success, James. I was particularly happy to see your project succeed – it was a bit of a favourite of mine.

  3. Great to hear people reflecting on the Research My World Project. As a Deakin researcher I was really keen to see this project succeed, and was especially pleased when ‘Mighty maggots v flesh nom bugs’ made it over the line because they’d put so much time and energy into promoting the project.

    It would be interesting to see if you can get direct feedback from some of the researchers involved in the project – but from informal discussions with people I get the impression that some people struggled with the “all or nothing” approach to funding that Pozible uses since it limited some fundraising activities. One of the researchers I talked to said that people kept trying to give her cash that she couldn’t collect, but that many of those people didn’t go on to donate through Pozible. While I love the idea of crowdfunding (and see the rationale of the all or nothing approach) it seems like it would be useful to take a wider view of the crowdfunding space that allows for more traditional forms of small donations.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Good point, Emily.

      There are other crowdfunding services that work differently. Rockethub, for example, allows you to keep every cent you raise (after transaction costs).

      The problem of payment online is an ongoing issue. On Kickstarter, you see campaigns that are accepting funds via Paypal because not everybody wants to pay via Amazon. It is another symptom of the same problem. I would have thought that Deakin could give people a receipt book, so that they could take cash donations. Think like a kindergarten. I know that universities hate dealing with cash, but I think that the goodwill that comes with small donations is important, too.

  4. Tony Smith says:

    Voyages of Discovery captivated me because it offers a kind of continuation to a very enjoyable chunk of my life that I’m physically beyond a full return to. I was happy to both contribute and push it to some other networks, but that was mostly after I had received some encouragement from Dan, the project promoter. At least one useful synergy came from those connections and that may ultimately be as much value as the money.

    There is already some precedent for funding bodies to offer matching funds, or some other multiplier formulation, on the basis that crowd funding campaigns are a useful test of a project’s worth. It would be really good if that started to catch on in the area of research funding.

    • Thanks, Tony

      I agree that pushing these requests out to other projects is often as much value as the funding. If, for example, you push it out and three people respond, then that is three times as effective as just donating alone.

      One of the criticisms leveled at crowdfunding research is that the funding isn’t peer-reviewed. This seems wrong-headed to me. A lot of philanthropic funding isn’t peer-reviewed either, and the philanthropic sector funds scads of good research.

      Crowdfunding provides an open channel where popular research can build an audience and attract funds. That seems like a new opportunity to me – one that doesn’t reduce the good work done by peer-reviewed funding bodies like the Australian Research Council, while still letting new ideas flourish. So I’m all for using it as a vehicle to develop matching funds.

      Good to talk again after so long.

      Jonathan

  5. Reza Mohammed says:

    Dammit! Now why didn’t I think of that?

    When I was a researcher, my supervisor used to joke that we should start our own company called ‘Fly By Night’ (get it? :D), and we would each put $1,000 of our own money into it, and then use the company as an ARC Linkage partner for aerospace research. Crowd funding has added some legitimacy to our hair brained idea.

    Would large funding bodies (e.g. ARC, NHMRC) and a university (other than Deakin) recognise this crowd sourced funds as ‘research income’? Would it be considered a ‘competitive grant’? So many questions spring to mind. Having said that, I love the idea: instead of reviewers allocating other people’s money to research, now John Public has the ability to decide which projects they want to throw their own money behind.

    I hope this catches on, and I hope that you keep us updated on whether these projects delivered on the promises.

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Hi Reza

      Long time no see. How are you going these days.

      Australian universities have their research funds audited by the Commonwealth, so you would need to talk to your local expert to make sure that your project will meet the definition of ‘research’ for auditing purposes.

      I recently spoke to Deb Verhoeven, who organised the Deakin Pozible campaign. She confirmed that Deakin will recognise the funds as research funds. To my mind, that means that Deakin is confident that the auditors will agree. However, she also pointed out that it took a big effort by many parts of the university to make this come together, including the Research Office, the Finance Office and the Development Office, who take care of donations.

      In Australian terms, this funding would be considered ‘Category 3 Industry and other research income’, with an emphasis on the word ‘other’. That is, it is not ‘Category 1 Australian competitive grants’ (which is a controlled list), not ‘Category 2 Other public sector’ and not ‘Category 4 Cooperative Research Centres (CRC)’.

      Before your ex-supervisor gets too excited, I think that we are a long way from funding bodies seeing this sort of funding as industry matching funds, either. Schemes like the ARC Linkage grants require not just matching funds but a clear advantage for the organisation providing the funds. There isn’t any organisation, per se, and even if there was, it would be difficult to show that it was gaining a direct competitive or other advantage from the research. Sorry – Fly By Night will have to stay grounded.

      I will be keeping you up-dated. I’ll be writing up my interview with Deb when I get a chance. I’ve popped a note in my diary to follow up on the projects in a year’s time. Or, if you are interested, you can track them yourselves. I think that most of the Deakin research groups now have some form of outreach – blog, Facebook group, Twitter stream or whatever. After all, Joan Public is very interested in their research and will be keen to know how they go.

      On that note, keep in mind that this is real research, so things may change – sometimes drastically. Microryza, a crowdfunding platform aimed specifically at research, doesn’t offer rewards specifically because they are funding research. In their FAQ, under the question ‘Why doesn’t Microryza provide tangible rewards’, they say:

      We believe the real value of research is in the process. At Microryza, we think that donors support research so they can see it move forward. Researchers provide updates, showing the donors exactly where their money goes. We understand that sometimes, your research project just doesn’t go as expected. That’s alright, because that is the nature of research. If you knew what things to expect, then you wouldn’t be doing anything new.

      • Reza Mohammed says:

        Hi Jonathan. All is well on this end – grant writing season has started.

        Thanks for the detailed response. It sounds like although crowd funding can bring in money that will be used for research purposes, it might be some time before it is viewed as orthodox ‘research income’. I guess that we can expect to get 100+ page ARC grant proposals for some time to come.

        Deakin is trailblazing in Australia, but are any Go8 universities on board with crowd funding yet?

  6. Hi James,

    Just wanted to correct an impression you seem to have from our ‘Mighty Maggots’ Campaign. This is a unique and world first clinical trial, it IS NOT repeating work attempted elsewhere. No other group has proposed (or carried out) a clinical trial to use maggots to treat mycobacterial skin ulcers before, to my knowledge.

    Maggot therapy has been used for other types of skin ulcers and infections (for thousands of years in traditional medicines) but never for this emerging tropical disease, which is endemic to the costal regions of the Greater Geelong Area.

    Kind regards, Mel Thomson

  7. Pingback: Crowd funding science research | Euan Ritchie

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