Can we crowdfund clinical research?

Kickstarter for drug trials.

Kickstarter's high-profile launch in the UK last month marks yet another step towards ubiquity for a thoroughly 21st century funding model. Driven by the simplicity of making online payments, crowdfunding sidesteps the limitations of traditional investment channels, instead harnessing the collective power of thousands of small-scale donations from the general public.

Kickstarter might have played host to more than $400 million in crowdfunded pledges since its launch in 2009, but one glance at the site's top ten funded projects – video games, fancy consumer tech, more video games – gives an indication of the relatively narrow scope of the crowdfunding model. Crowdfunding's main niche remains funding creative projects like albums, films and games, where the passion of fans can prompt huge surges in mass donation to bankroll new projects. But as this grass-roots funding method gains traction, new possibilities are beginning to open up.

Take drug development funding. In an era of shrinking government budgets and major funding cuts, could crowdfunding unlock a new source of financial support for the next generation of treatments and cures? Kickstarter excludes health and medical technologies from its fundable projects, but other companies are starting to catch on. MedStartr, a new crowdfunding platform launched this summer, got the ball rolling with a site dedicated to crowdfunding healthcare-related projects like physician videoconferencing, cancer support programmes and therapeutic exercise equipment. But another start-up has taken the concept a step further.

CureLauncher is a recently-launched website dedicated to crowdfunding early-stage clinical development as well as connecting patients and their families to the cutting edge of medical research. The site aims to provide alternative funding for important research projects and clinical trials in the US through large numbers of small contributions, which could be used as primary funding or as bridge funding so projects can continue to develop their science while they wait for federal grants. Like Kickstarter, CureLauncher takes a small percentage of each pledge to make its profit.

The website only launched in October, so doesn't yet have any major success stories to pin on its wall. Nevertheless, if the idea takes off, the potential advantages for US researchers are startling. With the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) facing $2.5 billion in budgets cuts for 2013, CureLauncher offers a platform to galvanise the people affected by chronic diseases and help make up this massive shortfall. 91 per cent of donations go directly to the research projects, and scientists only have to wait 30-45 days for their funds, as opposed to the two years it often takes for NIH funding to materialise. The site only works with heavily scrutinised NIH-level research, which might allay some fears about democratising a traditionally cautious and bureaucratic funding process.

But for CureLauncher's crowdfunding model to thrive in the long-term, it needs to create mass awareness of its sponsored projects, and connect to a large community of funders. That's why its creators, pharma lawyer Steve Goldner and product development expert Dave Fuehrer, have also placed a heavy emphasis on fostering a two-way relationship between researchers and the public. Donors can correspond with the researchers they are donating to, and the site also lists hundreds of enrolling clinical trials – their treatments explained without pharmajargon – so that patients can access early treatment.

It's still early days for CureLauncher, but its founders see the site as a global solution to a global problem, with ambitions to bring struggling research projects outside the US into the fold. It might be too early to tell if the crowdfunding model will work for drug research, but Kickstarter's track record proves that with enough public demand, huge sums of cash can be raised. And if the American public can shell out more than $3 m for a new range of fantasy gaming miniatures, one would hope it can scrape together a few dollars for potentially life-saving medical research.

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CureLauncher seeks small scale donations. Photograph: Getty Images


Chris Lo is a senior technology writer for the NRI Digital network.

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.