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
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How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.