There’s a common misconception that the real innovators in sci/tech are superstar scientist-entrepreneurs with paradigm-shifting ideas and technologies. The media and funding agencies tend to feed into this myth–i.e. superficial feature stories about scientists finding new cures, advocacy groups simplifying science to get more donations, and the National Institutes of Health / National Science Foundation making it more and more difficult to get funding for science projects with no direct applications in disease treatment. The goals they have in mind (e.g. advocacy or public engagement) are noble–not to mention fiscally and socially responsible–but the myth of the superstar genius our system feeds into is far from reality 99.9% of the time. It’s true that sometimes one group or person comes up with a groundbreaking idea that changes how we think about science, but most of the time discovery is iterative.
It’s important to address myths like this for the purpose of crowdfunding in general, and it’s especially important in the context of what we’re doing at Crowd BioVentures. Let me illustrate an example of why it’s so important to dispel the myth about biotech: today I used a technique called a BCA protein assay. The BCA assay gives life science researches a quick way to figure out how much protein they have in a tissue sample. A major advantage of using it for my purposes is its relative insensitivity to error from detergent contamination, which is higher than normal in the experiments I’m pursuing. The point I want to make about it for the purpose of this post is that the method’s use as a protein assay was a creative insight by Paul K. Smith and 9 of his colleagues at Pierce chemical company; nothing in the process was fundamentally new. They simply built upon existing knowledge about the chemical BCA to make it useful for protein quantitation. This application of BCA has several advantages compared to other methods, one of which I discussed above. And guess what: Pierce made and continues to make a lot of money from this insight. It’s incredibly useful for researchers trying to find novel treatments for diseases. Pierce never claimed it would cure cancer to get this product to market, but no doubt the BCA assay has been used in countless studies leading to new cancer treatments.
That’s the lesson here. If we’re going to crowdfund biotech startups the crowd needs to educate themselves. While funding portals will likely be allowed by the SEC to vet pitches that get on their websites, ultimately investor education is crucial to make crowdfunding successful. The BCA assay shows that you don’t need to promise cures for a disease to have an impact on healthcare, and you should be highly skeptical of any one company that claims it can realistically make a cure (or even a new treatment) happen. Startups can promise the world, but it’s the ones with realistic goals, a known market demand, and the right scientific foundation that will deliver and reward their investors. Look for biotech startups that want to take baby steps towards better science. Look for ones that have a creative solution to ongoing problems in research. Look for ones making small promises but thinking big. That’s the principle behind what Pierce did, and that’s the principle that can make you money. If it sounds too good to be true…well, you know. By the way, the picture above is Pierce’s BCA kit, but now it has Thermo Scientific’s name on it because big companies like Thermo pay big money for good ideas!