YC-Backed Microryza Is A “Kickstarter” For Scientific Research

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Do you want to know whether cannibalism existed amongst Tyrannosaurus Rexes or whether specific viruses contribute to lung cancer risk? Better yet, do you want to be part of making this research happen faster?

Screen Shot 2013-02-25 at 4.24.23 PMA Y Combinator-backed startup called Microryza is positioning itself as a “Kickstarter” for science research. The idea for Microryza sprouted when Cindy Wu, then an undergraduate at University of Washington, found that she had little hope of getting funding for studying a potential anthrax therapeutic.

She had discovered it after helping to create working in a lab that had created a video game that let regular people fold and create virtual enzymes. They came up with 87 different mutants that summer through the video game, and found that one could potentially treat anthrax infections after winning an MIT-based synthetic biology competition.

But her professor at the time was skeptical that she could get funding to study it further.

“He told me it was a small, early-stage idea and that because I was an undergraduate, I couldn’t get an NIH (National Institutes of Health) or NSF (National Science Foundation) grant,” she said. But he then let her pitch at a lab meeting and funneled money from another existing lab grant into her work.

“I was so lucky. But I realized there are so many other undergraduates, graduate students and faculty members that would never be able to get funding,” she said. “I talked to 100 different scientists and found that all of them had high-risk ideas, but they never wrote proposals because they didn’t think it would go through.”

So last year, she and co-founder Denny Luan launched Microryza. They work with five or six universities including the University of Washington, USC and UC Santa Cruz.

They vet every single researcher on the platform. Luan said Microryza looks for three things: 1) Is the researcher who they say they are? 2) Is the proposal fundamentally new research? 3) Is the researcher capable of carrying out the project?

They also work with the researchers to make sure there’s a lasting connection with their backers long after they receive funding. This is the hard part with science-focused Kickstarter concepts (and Microryza isn’t the only one), because research can take years before backers see conclusive results. There have been a few attempts with sites like Petridish, which launched last year and appears to have more than 30 completed projects.

Luan and Wu worked on building an information platform so that backers can track progress in realtime.

“With Kickstarter, there’s a tangible reward of getting a DVD or poster,” Wu said. “But it’s hard to replicate that feeling with information. So we wanted to build an update or information platform instead.”

The idea is that researchers can share images, videos and data from their work in real-time. Instead of science being something that the public participates in through badly, re-written stories in newspapers and wire services that often contradict each other, enthusiasts can see and closely follow the work of specific researchers.

“It’s almost as if researchers will be creating a custom-made journal article for their project backers,” Luan said. He added, “All results will be open access as well.”

Still, there are tangible rewards for a few of Microryza’s projects. One professor that is raising funds to dig up a Triceratops skeleton will let backers attend a “behind-the-scenes” night or a “Dino Day” once the remains are moved to a Seattle museum.

There aren’t any limits for how much a researcher can ask for or how much a donor can give. They’ve seen donations of up to $5,000 to 6,000 so far on the platform and there are about a dozen completed projects. Like Kickstarter, researchers only get funds if their entire ask is met. From that, Microryza takes a 5 percent transaction fee.

At the same time, Microryza tries to be as transparent as possible with who is funding projects. Individual profiles of donors appear on the site, although there is still an option to remain anonymous. (Even with academic projects, there are always ethical and transparency questions when corporations or for-profit entities contribute funding toward research.)

Luan says that while there might be some stigma around receiving financing from a crowdfunding site, Microryza is focusing on the most open researchers first.

“There are researchers that are so fed up with the system and so tired of dealing with all the bureaucracy and politics,” Wu said. “They just want to get their research done and out as fast as possible.”

The startup, which has three people working on it full time, has funding from YC, the Start Fund and 500 Startups.

Clarification: This article previously said that Wu had helped design a protein-folding video game, when she actually worked in the lab that designed the game.