The State of Medical Crowdfunding

Perhaps one of the best examples of the burgeoning crowdfunding culture in recent years is its increasing popularity with the medical community, which has come at it from a number of different angles. Patients, doctors and researchers are utilizing it to cover research costs, create new products, find cures, and cover expenses for medical procedures.

Government funding for medical research has stagnated over the last decade and has not kept pace with rising inflation levels. The upcoming 2013 budget sequestration could potentially slash the National Institute for Health’s (NIH) funding by at least 7.8% ($2.4 billion), which would be the largest funding cut in the agency’s history. The National Science Foundation could lose nearly $600 million, and the Department of Energy Office of Science could lose $400 million. Leaders in the industry worry that this will lead to a loss of jobs and a dramatic decrease in America’s standing as a global leader in medical research. Other countries—such as China, Germany, Sweden, and the UK—have dedicated themselves to putting more funding into their medical research in recent years. Furthermore, venture capital investments in healthcare are decreasing; venture investing in seed and early stage healthcare is down 33% from 3.6 billion in 2007.

As government and venture capital funding decreases for medical research, researchers are beginning to turn to new and innovative approaches for finding the money they need. Many find that crowdfunding is a useful and viable option because it cuts down on the time spent preparing for grants and waiting for approval. Consider this: one study shows that 40% of an academic’s time is spent applying for grants. Additionally, the typical NIH grant review process takes 18 months, which means that researchers have a year and a half between the time they apply for a grant and the time they know if they have even received the funding they need to start—or continue—their research. Crowdfunding allows researchers to supplement or bypass this process.  They get immediate (the average crowdfunding campaign lasts 30-45 days) access to funds and feedback on what they are doing directly from the community that it will actually impact. These campaigns often have an invested following in those who have suffered from the issue or know someone who has. This provides a readymade “crowd” that can help get these projects off the ground. Some examples of new sites that are using crowdfunding to help with medical innovation and information include the following:

  • Perhaps the most famous example of the medical industry using crowdfunding right now is MedStartr, which is a site for patients, doctors, and companies focused on healthcare innovation. It allows people to categorize the projects—e.g., “Breast Cancer,” “Diabetes,” or “Fitness” related—and seek money for a variety of purposes. Two women who had breast cancer and wanted to create a reconstructive bra for survivors started one project, which received press even from the New York Times. They received $10,135, surpassing their goal.
  • Other websites aim to do similar things, and they are proliferating. CureLauncher, whose motto is “Find. Fund. Cure.,” endorses the idea that cures will be found faster if every day people fund world class researchers for specific projects. They believe “directed donations and social networking allows the researchers to keep working in their clinics and labs and not wait years for scarce government grants.” They also try to provide a high level of transparency, by promising that funds go directly to the researchers requesting them and by allowing the public to see and hear exactly what the researchers are working on.
  • #SciFund Challenge (which is similar to Launcht’s VoltCrowd in many ways, but for scientists rather than start ups), trains scientists to manage their crowdfunding projects, provides community and assists with publicity once projects launch. It helps to take the work out of getting funding for projects so that scientists and researchers can spend more time focusing on their research goals.
  • A website dedicated to crowdsourcing information is called Ozioma, which works to improve medical news by helping journalists find locally relevant health information. It aggregates information from sixty sources including the CDC and NIH. They hope that by providing this information they can address three major issues: disparities in cancer outcomes related to race, minority-serving media that hasn’t been fully tapped, and the ability to bring a local angle to journalists.

There are also a number of sites that are looking to help patients crowdfund their medical expenses. In the United States, one of the principle causes of personal bankruptcies is medical expenses. In 2007, a reported 62% of personal bankruptcies were due to medical costs, even in those who had insurance. To combat that, sites like Fundly, YouCaring, and GiveForward have started in order to help people share their stories and, with any luck, gain the traction to at least begin to cover their expenses. Indiegogo received some press recently when a woman chose to create a campaign to fund her IVF treatments.

These sites are attempting to help improve access to medical treatments across the board: finding new cures, funding research, and helping individuals afford the costly medical help they need. With any luck, these kinds of websites will continue to drive health and innovation in our country and make health care more affordable and accessible for everyone.

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