Tulane forges partnership with site that aims to fund research

Ricardo Mostany had an idea.

Mostany, a pharmacology and neurology researcher at the Tulane School of Medicine, had begun to wonder if the synthetic chemical Bisphenol A, or BPA, which is found in everyday items like beverage containers, food cans and compact discs, might have a negative effect on cognitive function in adults.

“I wanted to see whether the BPA levels that the EPA deems as safe are really safe,” he said.

Mostany aspired to conduct a small-scale study using mice as test subjects and sophisticated imaging equipment that could indicate whether the chemical might be harmful to the brain.

The problem was that such a study, with a budget of only $15,000 and no preliminary data to back it up, was a poor candidate for funding from major research-supporting bodies such as the National Institutes of Health.

After applying unsuccessfully for a number of grants, Mostany chose an alternate route.

He is now one of 13 researchers at the Tulane School of Medicine trying to get his work financed through a partnership with the website Microryza, a crowd-funding platform that seeks to piggyback on the success of websites such as Kickstarter to provide an alternative fundraising route for scientists and health researchers.

The website, which was founded 18 months ago by Denny Luan and Cindy Wu, 24-year-old science researchers who previously worked at the University of Washington in Seattle, allows approved scientists from major universities to solicit funds from the public for their projects.

Researchers provide descriptions of their proposals, along with detailed budgets and their professional qualifications. They typically have 45 days to raise the entirety of the budget; if they come up short, the donated money is returned.

Luan said the idea for the project occurred to him when he was having problems covering the cost of an experiment aimed at using a computational video game called Fold It to design an enzyme to treat anthrax.

“There needed to be a place online where people could fund research they actually care about,” he said.

Luan and Wu eventually quit their research jobs and moved to San Francisco to work full time on Microryza.

So far the website has generated a total of $500,000 and funded 70 projects, Luan said.

He said the website often funds projects that, for a variety of reasons, can’t get money elsewhere.

One of the most popular was a study examining the correlation between gun laws and gun violence, an area of public health research where money is scarce. Another was an archaeological dig that extracted the fossils of a Triceratops dinosaur.

Mary Brown, vice dean at the Tulane School of Medicine, said her interest was piqued when she heard about the website at a research conference in Washington.

Brown said a recent decline in funding for medical research has made it very difficult for young researchers with novel ideas to get projects off the ground. “If you haven’t proven yourself on a smaller scale, it’s almost impossible,” she said.

Microryza had been working with individual researchers on a case-by-case basis, but the company decided to make Tulane its first institutional partner.

The university has a dedicated webpage, https://www.microryza.com/tulane , where all 13 research projects, ranging in subject matter from kidney cancer to concussions, are posted.

As of Saturday, the page had raised a total of about $1,500, with all the projects at under 5 percent of their fundraising goals, which will need to be met by Jan. 24.

Luan said that, unlike Kickstarter, Microryza doesn’t provide donors with rewards. However, it does emphasize transparency: Researchers whose projects are funded provide updates, reports and other results to their donors on a periodic basis.

Eva Morava-Kozicz, a Tulane researcher studying children with congenital glycosylation, a digestive disorder related to sugar, said she felt one of the benefits of having her proposal on the site was that her work will be more accessible to the public.

According to Luan, local visibility for health and science research centers is one of the company’s goals.

“We want people to know that there is a great research institute down the street from them doing all of sorts of innovative stuff,” he said.