Dr. Martin Nielsen helped launch the first crowdfunding project for equine research.
Photo: Steve Patton, Courtesy Dr. Martin Nielsen
Until about a year ago, I had heard the terms “crowdfunding” and “crowdsourcing” several times without fully understanding what they meant. When my wife made a small donation toward a musician’s efforts to raise enough money to release her first album, I started to get an idea of what this was all about. The musician had posted a project description on a crowdfunding website called Kickstarter and invited people to make donations online. Word then spread through social media. The campaign was successful, and the musician reached her goal.
Soon thereafter, I was listening to NPR while driving to work one morning. The station was broadcasting a feature about scientists using crowdfunding to raise funding for their research. The concept was the same as for the musician, but instead of an album the final product would be a funded research project. The key to success was still effective communication by means of social media. I immediately thought this would be worth trying.
Through the years I have been studying equine parasitology, I have always enjoyed how horse owners appreciate science. The Horse’s magazine, website, and newsletters serve as an excellent illustration of this; people genuinely like science and they want updated information. I figured this would provide a good foundation for a crowdfunding project. Furthermore, I felt my research topic, parasitology, would be a common denominator across various horse breeds, uses, and geographic locations. No matter what, horses will always have worms, and owners will always have opinions about and experiences with controlling them.
No one from the University of Kentucky had tried crowdfunding for research projects before. But there was a lot of interest in it, and a crowdfunding task force had already been established. Before I knew it, I had become the university’s first pilot research crowdfunding project, examining a promising alternative treatment modality to reduce our reliance on existing dewormers to which parasites are developing resistance. My team is working with a strain of naturally occurring bacteria capable of killing worms; hence, the name of our campaign is “Let the germs get the worms.”
We decided to attempt to develop our own website infrastructure for crowdfunding. By doing this, we had the freedom to design the site as we wanted it, we would avoid paying the fees associated with using a commercial crowdfunding website, and American residents could obtain tax credit for their donations. With help from many excellent people at the University of Kentucky, we were able to leverage the already existing online donation system to develop a website as well as three promotional videos. We set up a Twitter account and made use of already existing Facebook and LinkedIn accounts to promote the project. We used an online group emailing service to communicate with donors and supporters.
The crowdfunding campaign launched in the beginning of January 2014 and ran for two months. During this time our page was shared and retweeted well over 400 times, the videos have been viewed more than 2,000 times, about 300 unique users signed up on the website, and we raised more than $8,500. Further, the campaign has greatly promoted our research program, as we have appeared in several news articles and were hosted on radio shows. Interestingly, we have had some substantial donations come in after we stopped campaigning, and they don’t show signs of stopping. We intend to keep the site open and provide regular updates about our project and future campaigns.
Our ultimate goal with this project is to develop a probiotic-type product for horses, but the first step is to test it against equine parasites in the laboratory. This is what we will use the crowdfunding money for, and we have already started the work. Preliminary data show a very good effect of our test bacteria against equine small strongyles, and we are continuing to evaluate this further. You can learn more about the project and follow our progress at http://equineparasitology.ca.uky.edu.
Martin Nielsen, DVM, PhD, Dipl. EVPC, ACVM, is an equine parasitologist, veterinarian, and assistant professor at the University of Kentucky Gluck Equine Research Center, in Lexington.
Originally published in the July 2014 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.