#FoundersFriday with Natalie Jonk from Walacea
In our #FoundersFriday series we interview the founders of different scholarly communication businesses, asking them to share their advice for others and their perspective on the industry as a whole.
For this edition we have interviewed Natalie Jonk, founder of Walacea, the crowdfunding platform for science.
What made you decide to launch Walacea?
I left my job in the pharmaceutical industry because I wanted to do something that was a bit more environmentally friendly. That was my original goal, and I had a slightly different idea for a business, geared towards getting A-Level students to think about careers in academia, because at that point I didn’t realise there was a massive shortage of funding, which was perhaps a bit naive of me. I would have liked to have maybe been a marine biologist and I didn’t really go down the right path to do that. I thought maybe I could help A-Level students think about academic careers, by matching them with researchers and giving them an opportunity to spend time with them in the field, while they’re on their gap year for example.
I spoke to some professors about the idea, to see what they thought, and then it became really apparent that the issue was really funding, not a lack of people wanting to pursue an academic career. There is no shortage of qualified people, there is just a shortage of funding. Simultaneously I knew about crowdfunding being a rapidly growing way of raising money for projects, so I put the two together and started working on crowdfunding for science.
If you could go back in time and give your pre-Walacea self one piece of advice, what would it be and why?
I’d say that when I started it was very much first getting to understand whether or not there was actually potential to build a business from this, and whether people were interested in supporting science. I suppose I did spend a bit too long doing market research on how the research councils work. When I realised the research councils were turning down a lot projects that were actually quite fundable, I approached them to see whether they could help provide me with the projects they couldn’t fund. I think I probably spent a lot of time trying to work with those big organisations, the obvious people to approach, and it’s very hard to work with big organisations when you’re a startup, when you haven’t really done very much. So I maybe wasted a bit of time trying to do that, I think I should have focussed on smaller things. Although it was helpful to understand how the research councils work and also to have that experience of being knocked back.
What were the biggest challenges?
There’s a huge number of challenges, from getting scientists to want to crowdfund with us, to getting people to want to support those scientists, to making sure the platform is working properly, to sorting out the tech side, finding people who can help you do specific tasks, making sure they’re the right people. There’s a few people that I’ve hired to do things who maybe weren’t the right people and then I’ve had other people where they’ve been amazing, above and beyond what I could have expected. There’s a lot of different challenges to face day-to-day, you just have to have the mindset that you can figure out how to keep moving forwards and not become overwhelmed. You just can’t have a “I can’t do that” attitude. If you don’t know how to do something you just have to figure it out because no one else is going to do it for you!
Are there any skills from having a scientific background that can translate to starting up a business?
There are definitely skills that have been helpful from having a scientific background, like looking at data and trying to make decisions based on what the data is telling you, I think that’s quite helpful, when you actually start to see patterns emerging, it’s useful to have that science-y analytical mind.
I don’t think you can really be prepared for what you need to learn to do. I’ve learnt how to work with journalists and get articles in the media, I had no idea about that, that’s something you just kind of learn. You need to have social media channels, Twitter and Facebook, and some people have lots of skills in that area, but you don’t start with a whole department for social media and a department for PR and a department for legal. If you’ve got skills in science there’s going to be skills you don’t have that you’re going to have to learn.
In terms of how Walacea works, was it harder to find scientists who were open to having their funding delivered by crowdfunding or was it harder to find people who were willing to fund scientists via crowdfunding?
I think both are hard, especially at the beginning it was really hard to find scientists because they didn’t really know what crowdfunding was and I didn’t really have that much information I could share with them about how much they could raise. I could use examples from other crowdfunding sites, there have been a few science crowdfunding campaigns on IndieGoGo and Kickstarter, but I didn’t really have a lot of specific data that I could use. It was quite hard to get the first projects, and then the first projects that we did we went for goals that were way bigger than they should’ve been, so those ones didn’t really work.
With the first projects I really tried to find the backers with the scientists. For example, there was an ocean acidification project, and I spent a lot of time tweeting to people who cared about the oceans and trying to build networks with those people and trying to encourage them to share the project and help fund it. But what I’ve found really is that it makes much more sense for the scientist to do that side of things because they often already have the relationships. Even when I put loads of effort in it doesn’t really help, so it’s actually better that I explain to the scientists what I think they should do and what will help them, i.e. engaging their networks, thinking about who their allies are. One of the scientists that crowdfunded with us, his project wasn’t really doing much, then I had a Skype call with him and I asked him “Who’s in your network?” and it turned out he had a few people with massive Facebook and Twitter followings in his network, I asked if he could see if they could post about him and the next day his project had over 10,000 hits. Sometimes it’s more about getting them to think about how they can leverage their own networks rather than me doing it for them.
Some scientists seem to be better at engaging their networks than others and I think sometimes that can be related to how much they really want to successfully crowdfund. It can feel a bit uncomfortable to be contacting your peers and your friends. Some don’t like the self-promotion but some really do like it. One of the scientists who crowdfunded recently, Eloise, she needed funding for a couple of months salary because her funding was really running out and she needed to get some publications out. She was obviously really determined to get the funding, she funded it really quickly through her network but then she had people who she didn’t even know support it as well. Since she’s crowdfunded she’s been on Finnish TV, she’s had all these news articles about her, she said she just feels like her career is taking off and it’s been an incredible experience for her.
I think with crowdfunding you often get out what you put in, although there are outliers like the Professor Nutt LSD research, which had what are known as “super-backers”, where you have people who will not only financially support your project but will really promote it for you, and when some of those people promoting it are people who have big networks, which is what happened with the LSD project, then it just takes off.
Do you think people are paying enough attention to crowdfunding or do you think that a lot of people are still regarding it as a very niche thing?
We are still very small, we’ve only done 15 projects and there’s hundreds of thousands of academics in the UK so in terms of that we’re still pretty early-stage. My feeling is that there is an appetite for crowdfunding in the scientific community and maybe some people are a bit nervous and are watching to see what happens or who are not quite ready to do their own campaign but are thinking about it. There probably is a perception that it can’t fund really big projects, I think that’s probably true for now, but I think as the community grows with people who want to support science it will become easier to fund bigger projects. I think some people also say it’s just for popular science, it could be for popular science but it could also be for popular scientists. Stephen Hawking is a very popular scientist and I don’t know if what he does is popular science. If a scientist is working on something quite complicated that they don’t think the public will understand, maybe they can make it more about them and what their research mission is and why they’re doing what they’re doing and build their network that way.
Do you think crowdfunding has benefits beyond just financial support, in terms of public engagement and science communication?
Definitely, I think crowdfunding is really great for outreach and getting the public more engaged with science. One of the projects we’ve got at the moment is investigating whether neonicotinoids are present in plants that are sold as “bee friendly” in garden centres. Some people are aware of neonicotinoids and know that they are bad for bees and there’s some people that know nothing about them. So through crowdfunding and people sharing the project on social media, it means that people who read it become aware that maybe the situation isn’t quite as they think, when they buy a “bee friendly” plant at a garden centre. Crowdfunding is really good for making people aware of the work scientists are doing and why it’s important, as well as for helping them raise funding.
There are people making an effort to engage the public in science, but you don’t often see information about individual scientists and research projects pop up on your Facebook page, so crowdfunding can really help make people much more aware of what scientists are up to.
Do you have a favourite project that has been funded?
My favourite one was the LSD brain imaging study we raised £53k for from over 1600 supporters.t was very exciting and it demonstrated the publics willingness to support research that they want to see happen which is what Walacea is all about. The research proposal was turned down by the Medical Research Council originally and now it’s been published in prestigious journal, PNAS and Walacea was acknowledged in that, which was really nice for us. Also when I first had the idea for rewards-based crowdfunding for science, I thought people could go to talks and get artwork related to the study, and with that project it really worked, 600 people got limited edition prints related to the study and we had 300 people come to a seminar, asking questions, meeting the scientists, that was incredible to watch unfold.
Have many of the projects have led to publication?
I think it’s still a bit too early. Eloise, she’s just had a publication but not for the study we helped fund, that will take a bit of time. There’s another one, Ede Frecska in Hungary, I think his study is hopefully going to be published shortly, I think it’s being reviewed at the moment.
Traditional funders often have mandates and policies about the outputs of funding, for example around Open Access. Does Walacea do that?
No, we don’t have any mandates at the moment, we might in the future. I’m very passionate about Open Access, so I would quite like to try and involve that somehow. But at the moment we’re quite flexible because we’re at such early-stages, it’s hard enough as it is, so to have that extra process would be too much at the moment. When I process the funds, I do send a letter outlining what the funds are for, and I follow up with successful crowdfunders for blogs about how the research has gone and also their crowdfunding experience.
Do you have plans for the future development of Walacea?
Yes, lots! At the moment we’re raising a round of investment to further develop the platform, build a team and continue to build our community. In particular we will be focussed on finding ways to help scientists crowdfund more efficiently and encourage new scientists to explore crowdfunding with us. . Our goal is to raise hundreds of millions for scientific research through crowdfunding, in order to do this we need to understand the drivers of successful crowdfunding by working closely with our early adopters on their campaigns. We are always looking for new projects to support, even in areas that may not seem to have an obvious public appeal so if you are a scientist thinking about crowdfunding please do get in touch with us even just to share your thoughts on what makes you curious about crowdfunding and what might be holding you back – we’re a friendly bunch and would love to hear from you!