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.