When Cindy Wu was a 22-year-old student at the University of Washington, she had an idea but needed funding.
Wu had been part of an award-winning undergraduate team that created an enzyme which allows the immune system to recognize anthrax as a bacterial threat. Wu and her team were then trying to do the same with staph bacteria.
They needed funding however — about $5,000 to purchase antibodies and a flow cytometer, a device that analyzed cell structures. When she approached her professor with questions on where to get funding, he replied:
“You can’t because you are 22 years old and you don’t have a Ph.D. and you don’t want more than $25,000.”
Rather than let her idea fall apart due to the lack of funding, Wu and her friends developed an idea. “Why can’t we just create a Kiva
for scientists?” her best friend and biochemistry/economics major Denny Luan suggested.
Wu explained, “We were like, ‘Well … we should just try to build one and see if it works.’”
Wu immediately jumped into market research and asked scientists if they would use a crowdfunding-like platform for scientific research. “Every single person said, ‘Yes — if you built this, I would use it,’ ” Wu said.
At the time, there were only two major players in the field of scientific research funding: the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. Even small projects which could push scientific knowledge further may not have met the scale or importance those organizations desired in order to fund them, so Wu set to work creating her platform.
“We taught ourselves to code, and built a website. It was an experiment: Do people want to give directly to scientists? And if they do want to give to science, what do they want in return? ‘I just wanted to know if it would work.’ ”
Wu and her friend Luan used what little saving they had to launch Microryza, “a Kickstarter for research.” However, they needed more funding, so they began trying to raise money in Seattle. Wu explained:
“Absolutely no one wanted to fund us. Investors wanted to know what our exit strategy was. We didn’t have one. Our exit strategy was to find a cure for cancer, or put a man on Mars, or build a time machine. So they thought that we weren’t taking it seriously. But actually, that was the truth.”
In 2013, Wu took another route and applied to Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s top startup seed fund organization. After a 10-minute interview, Wu and Luan were accepted to YC’s prestigious three-month startup boot camp.
Then came “Demo Day,” a chance for all the startups in the current YC class to present their ideas to investors.
The result? Wu’s three-minute pitch earned her $1.2 million from investors. Elizabeth Iorns, a renowned Silicon Valley researcher, began using Microryza to fund her cancer research while Bill Gates said the startup was a “solution [that] helps close the gap for potentially promising but unfunded projects.”
Today, Microryza has been rebranded as “Experiment
,” and of the 5,058 projects launched, they have funded 336. Their current projects include making anesthesia safer for dogs through nutrition, sequencing the Black Rhino genome, and finding a cure for Batten disease
Now 26, Wu has already revolutionized and streamlined the way scientific research is funded. At a recent State Department event, Wu answered questions from some of the world’s most important officials in diplomacy, the private sector and the scientific community. She issued a challenge to them:
“And my challenge to you is: don’t just talk about why science is important, go fund science that you think is important; find ways around the paywalls that prevent so much academic research from being accessed and shared in the developing world.”
Even when you only have a great idea but nothing to build it with, there is always a way. This is yet another example of how a simple idea can change the world.