Another puff-piece on supposed "indie science"

Mar 10 2015 Published by under Careerism, CrowdFund

Science Careers has returned to the Perlstein situation in a recent bit by Rachel Bernstein titled "Into the wild". They lead with "indie science" which as it turns out is a bit misleading.

The bit has nothing to do with indie science save as a sort of testimonial that indie science is a bankrupt, unworkable idea, just as I have always suggested.

Today, Perlstein is the CEO of Perlstein Lab—PLab for short—a for-profit, pubic (sic) benefit corporation he founded in 2014 that is housed in a biotech incubator in San Francisco, California.

All his research and discussions led him to decide that he should take on the more traditional role of biotech startup founder, but he hasn’t given up on “indie” science.

He brainstormed with his brother, a legal entrepreneur who became a PLab cofounder. He supported himself by consulting for a startup developing a science-crowdfunding platform, and he lived off savings he had been able to put aside during his postdoc.

As he was working to identify a profitable research direction, his thoughts “all crystallized around rare diseases.” This research area seemed to be a sweet spot where he could do intellectually exciting science that would appeal to investors as well.

Investors seem to agree that it’s a worthwhile approach: In 2014, he raised $2.2 million.

GREAT! So happy a scientist is able to pursue an entrepreneurial direction and can get investors to fund him to do it. Very happy for Ethan on this front.

Also happy to see the Science Careers update us on their previous love fest for the idea of crowd-funded indie science, although they could have pointed out more explicitly how wrong they were about this being remotely viable.

UPDATE: HAHHAHAHAHAHA, Perlstein misses the point. Per usual.

I love startups. Said so at the end of this very post that I hope he succeeds, as it happens. What I "ridicule" is the notion that crowd funded or "indie" science can work or be any sort of replacement for major public investment.

42 responses so far

  • I really don't get your whole hatred of the indie-science movement. And no, one indie scientist deciding to go to normal biotech proves nothing about the viability of the movement.

  • drugmonkey says:

    "hatred"? how so?

  • Ola says:

    JTFC, Perlstain is an insufferable fuck.

    I mean realistically, hudafuq manages to put money aside during a postdoc, and then get their rich lawyer brother to bankroll their whimsical ideas? Not exactly the best example of how the rest of the unwashed masses are supposed to accomplish things.

    As has been stated here and elsewhere, all of this crowd funding thrives on the novelty of the idea (in this case, the idea of crowd funding a lab). Once that novelty has worn off, the chances of anyone making it rich via exactly the same route, are zero. It's like the app development business - if you're in at ground level you can make a quick buck, but even now the oldie developers are struggling to keep their shareholders happy. I don't see people rushing into crowd funded science because the novelty has worn off,

  • Well, you seem to be taking a particular joy in pointing out this news and generalizing it to an entire field, plus you seemed to take rather a lot of glee in the problems of uBiome in previous articles.

  • becca says:

    One of these days, I'ma do a kickstarter where people send me a sample and I sequence their microbiome and send them a hippiefied "diet plan" telling them whether they need to eat more quinoa or coconut oil.
    Then I'm going to take all of my millions of dollars and go find some new antibiotics.

    You're welcome, humans.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    If you started a biotech to engineer quinoa not to taste like gritty dried smallpox scabs, you could really explode.

  • drugmonkey says:

    I am always happy to be proved right, JB.

    what problems of uBiome? You aren't confusing this with my irritation with 23andme for their disregard for human subject protections are you?

  • Kevin. says:

    GMO quinoa will be as commercially successful as PLab, I suspect.

  • I mean the whole thing where uBiome didn't initially have an IRB for its collection (which it didn't even have to have, technically)

  • drugmonkey says:

    Because "technically" is bullshit.

  • Jonathan says:

    I cringe every time someone brings up crowdsourcing science here at the salt mine.

  • Dave says:

    ...he lived off savings he had been able to put aside during his postdoc

    That might be the most ridiculous thing I have read in a long time.

  • Dave says:

    I was in the academic 1%, he says

    Fuck me.

  • mytchondria says:

    In case anyone missed it, Ola said Perlstein is an insufferable fuck. I disagree. He is a pompous insufferable fuck.

    I'm not sure what sort of fuckking with the masses post this is Ted, but if Perlstein wants to pound lysosomes up his arse, fine, but to say his shitte doesn't stink and people in academia are doing it wrong is the height of arrogance. Most arrogant fucktards know they should figure some important science shit out or have the decency to backstab someone and grab credit for an important bit of work before being a pompous arsehats. Not so much for Perlstein.

    Dood squirms in as middle author on a couple of glam papers that aren't even that good and now he's the top 1% w less than 1300 citations to his articles? Yeah, um, no buddy. Just no. Marc Tessier-Lavigne going to from academia to Genentech then to head The Roc....that's the top 1% of scientists (note the 2900+ citations to a single paper he published). I'm guessing Rockefeller won't be knocking at your door when Marc's tenure is up, EO.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Did any data ever get published from Perlstein's yeast meth lab Kickstarter? Does anyone know? What did the donors get? Email updates or anything?

  • Ola says:

    It wasn't Kickstarter, it was Rockethub. Here's the link...

    Gee, the $1k pledge level gets you involved in the manuscript writing process! As someone who's got a stack of in-process papers on my desktop right now, I can only describe such a "reward" as pure punishment! Who in their right mind would sign up for that? The other rewards all seem NYC centric, which means presumably they already occurred before Perlstain jumped ship to the bay area.

    According to the funders list, Zen Faulkes, David Kroll, Ethan White, Michael Eisen, Ross Mounce were some the suckers. They're in the blogtwittosphere, so might be willing to comment if asked?

  • Dave says:

    I followed his early shit a little bit. It seemed that yeast stuff never went anywhere, and then of a sudden he was into rare diseases. Very little mention of yeast these days.

  • citizen says:

    I thought most science in the US was "crowd funded", through the traditional mode of collecting taxes from the public

  • potnia theron says:

    One issue with Indie funding is that there is a lotta work, important work, trailblazing work, paradigm shifting work that just does not seem sexy or important or trailblazing at the time. There is important scientific work that might in the future lead to commercialization or better health or something. That's one of the reasons for NSF & NIH.

    Just the sheer size of the NIH extramural operation should suggest why indie-funding isn't the best thing for us as Americans with a stake in research (though small-gov't advocates would argue otherwise). If I had a billion to give away (remember the NIH budget is $31.311 billion), I would need an apparatus to get that money where I would want it to go. To judge what happened to it. Is anyone going to raise a billion thru kickstarter? I don't think so.

  • becca says:

    In a perfect world, we wouldn't spend a billion dollars with no accountability.

    In the world we live in, we spend $93 billion on video games. A very tiny proportion of that is raised via crowdfunding, though apparently *somebody* is going to raise 74 million that way. Aside from delivering on the incentives promised in the crowdfunding, I don't know that the oversight there is terribly strict. And maybe that's ok. We could do worse things than frivolously spending on science. Industry is low-profit-risk-averse, academia is low-novelty-risk-averse (i.e. publishability bias). Maybe we need some science that involves frivolity and popular appeal in the ecosystem.

    The ethical lapses of not initially having IRB boards for non-institutional research aside, I see a lot of objections to crowdsourcing, but I don't think "lack of oversight" is on my list (again, at least not lack of *financial* accountability).
    At least until someone crowdfunds stem cell snake oil to Parkinson's patients. Which, for the record, is a *highly* profitable idea given the intensity of the placebo effect and the stem cell hype, and if I get disgruntled enough to turn fully evil I'm surely going that route. This is why y'all should be grateful I enjoy messing with quinoa loving hippies.

  • jmz4 says:

    So are "crowd-funded" and "indie" science being used interchangeably?
    I actually like the idea of crowd funded science if it's done in a properly equipped, OSHA and IACUC certified lab (like in a University). Hard to call that "indie" science, though.

    Come to think of it, the universities should really be the ones dipping their toes into the crowd funding pool. 1) They've got the regulatory and legal framework for the labs, sponsored programs offices to help design the project pages, and they're going to want at least some of their IDC covered (so they should be part of the process)
    2). They've got established Alumni networks they can reach out to in addition to just, the interwebz at large.
    3) They've got the connections and resources to offer much cooler and better prizes for the funders. Hats, shirts, bumperstickers, mugs, they already make all these. Then they've got unique resources like renting out the rotunda for a private party, organizing conferences, etc.

    I mean, I get that they already do this somewhat through PI's calling up alumni for donations and whatnot, but channeling it through these types of sites seems like it would work a little better, and reach a broader market, because you get free marketing via the facebook and such.
    I think it could work a lot like an intramural grant, you just put together your proposal, the SPO puts together the kickstarter with details about the individuals working on it (their history, little videos, all that jazz) and handles all the regulatory obligations.

    Also, yes, Persltein definitely comes off as iconoclastic to the point of arrogance in his interviews. Also not thrilled about his pestering of parents' with sick kids for money when he hasn't really demonstrated translational utility.

  • qaz says:

    Universities already do crowd funding. It's just that they play the game at the multimillion dollar level and it's called private donations.

    Most universities also already have ways for people to donate small donations (e.g. Alumni Association). The amount of money that comes in from these small donations is usually too small to pay for much.

  • jmz4 says:

    " It's just that they play the game at the multimillion dollar level and it's called private donations. "
    -Which kind of takes away the "crowd" part of it, no?

    "The amount of money that comes in from these small donations is usually too small to pay for much."
    -Right, but they don't exactly advertise it well, and it has a certain staleness to it that I think could be circumvented by adapting to use these programs. Instead of just saying "give us your money for research on Alzheimer's" they could make the funding plea much more interactive and personalized. That's what these crowdsourcing sites excel at that traditional funding streams don't do well.

  • drlongjong says:

    So much hyperventialting here.

    Haters gonna hate. Obvious jealousy.

  • drlongjong says:

    Indie is short for independent. Not to be confused with un-funded or crowd sourced.

    Independent from the academy.

    look who else uses this term:

  • Yes, Robert Edgar is legit. Basically everybody I know uses MUSCLE and USEARCH. But neither I nor anybody I know actually buy the licenses for the 64-bit versions, so I don't really know how he makes a living.

  • woefully_out_of_touch says:

    @jmz4 - your thought experiment of replacing universities with crowdfunding portals reeks of short sightedness. I find it amusing that not one commenter in this thread seems to understand what makes indie science tick, and specifically, why people choose to participate in crowdfunded science. Every stop to think that you might not be the target audience, and therefore, you might be missing the train of change?

  • drlongjong says:

    I have purchased a 64-bit version of usearch and so have many others.

    I am also an independent scientist, i make $ by doing analyses and sometime developing smaller programs than what edgar does (no license sales) for clients. I also still publish biology papers. No investors necessary so far and I make way more than a post doc. I just graduated.

  • newbie PI says:

    What Ethan calls his "postdoc" was really a failed attempt at being a PI through a special 5-year program at Princeton. I assume he made a Princeton faculty salary, so it's not that surprising that he was able to save enough to live off of for a while. But calling it a postdoc is disingenuous and also makes him seem even more out of touch with real postdocs.

  • jmz4 says:

    " your thought experiment of replacing universities with crowdfunding portals reeks of short sightedness"
    -What? I said Universities should *utilize* crowdfunding portals. Or at least provide the framework to allow their utilization by their researchers. I say this because a lot of the "controversy" surrounding these methods of funding is that they're too small or inconsistent and lack proper regulation. Small and inconsistent isn't a problem for researchers with other support, and the regulation can be folded into existing protocols.

    And I specifically made mention of disentangling "indie" and crowdfunded science. They're not the same thing and I see no reason that establishment scientists can't tap into this stream of funding.

    People crowdfund to have a personal connection or early access to a product. I see no way this is incompatible with current academic research.

    "Every stop to think that you might not be the target audience, and therefore, you might be missing the train of change?"
    -No, I think the general skepticism here is that it will ever be a viable career path for more than a few special snowflakes.

  • jmz4 says:

    "I am also an independent scientist, i make $ by doing analyses and sometime developing smaller programs than what edgar does (no license sales) for clients. I also still publish biology papers"
    -Yes, dude, we know computational people have a lot more options when it comes to this sort of thing. Bench researchers do not. We have expenses and regulatory overhead that make sidework not only impractical, but illegal.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    $200K in research support for 5 years, newbie PI. That is like starting a faculty job with an R01 from day one! Not too shabby.

    Also, a "generous salary"

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Unsurprisingly they seem to do okay for themselves......

  • newbie PI says:

    Drugmonkey, that's what I was saying. He wasn't ever a postdoc. That program is a skip-the-postdoc and become a PI type deal.

    This is why I'm irritated with him getting so much praise for starting the term postdocalypse. He was never a postdoc. He's an elitist who is completely out of touch with reality, and he has contributed substantially to the overwhelming disillusionment of current postdocs.

    He somehow managed to create this false impression on social media that he was an ivy leaguer postdoc who did amazingly great work, but still couldn't get a job. Of course that narrative is going to terrify the average postdoc from your standard State School. But in reality, he is a failed PI who was given every advantage and just couldn't cut it. He had a MILLION dollars worth of funding with no restrictions and free usage of Princeton(!) core facilities. But what does he have to show for all that? Two crappy papers in mid-bottom tier journals. Of course he was never going to get a job when his elitist mind would not let him even consider going to an institution of lower prestige. I mean, how does he have the nerve to think that some other ivy league school should have given him a job and invested another million in startup given his track record?? All I can say is that he really pulled one over on whoever gave him his current 2.2 million. In case you couldn't tell, I really dislike him. And yes, I have met him once in person and his face is just as smug as it is in pictures.

  • drlongjong says:


    I know what you're saying, bioinfo is the main appeal for clients to work with me, but I've been able to get some of my contract work for doing bench work at other peoples' benches. I don't work with mammals, but for molecular stuff they pay the over head for supplies, I help them set up and train their personnel in some cases. Not illegal or impractical at all, it's kind of nice having many small labs set up all over the state. Keeps my overhead at near zero for now. I'm insured to do this and work with unis and private labs. It's not side work for me, it's more than full time. Hope to hire help soon.

    I'm also maybe going to set up my own wet lab space this summer, and I've found that it's really not that expensive once you have some revenue from service work. I'm going to sublet some extra space from another molecular co and it's hardly any more than my apartment. Equipment can be expensive depending on what you need, but there is tons of cheap stuff out there from biotechs that are going under. Just saying it can be done.

  • drlongjong says:

    "contributed substantially to the overwhelming disillusionment of current postdocs."


    more like he tapped into the overwhelming disillusionment that's been there since before him. really it's a good thing imo, since most pis and institutions just want to sweep the real issues under the rug. the fact that he gets under ppls skin so much really just shows he's at least kind of right, agree he failed hard at using 200K per year for 5 years though. F-me, that's a sweet fellowship, although it includes teaching

  • drugmonkey says:

    the fact that he gets under ppls skin so much really just shows he's at least kind of right

    No, it doesn't. It shows that he is annoying.

  • physioprof says:

    And he's not "getting under people's skin". He is an uproarious laugh riot of ludicrousness. What gets under some people's skin is the fawning narratives he elicits, like from the Science piece.

  • rxnm says:

    He didn't contribute anything to postdoc disillusionment, he just lazily exploited it to market himself. I would love to see any evidence that he gave a shit about "postdocs" as a whole while he was in his BSD lab bubble or fellowship.

    I think it's unfair to jump all over him for dropping the yeast thing... he wants to stay in the game, and he is following ideas that are fundable and doable in the extremely limited ecosystem he's found himself in. His insufferable "victim of the system" persona--based on his hopelessly naive view of academia and a massively overly inflated sense of his own value and achievements--makes him hard to like, but I'd like to see people succeed who are doing what he is doing.

    The main damage here is done by journalists, who create the impression that basic research can be conducted outside the NIH/NSF/university system by "mavericks" willing to do it. There are limited fields and cases where this is uncontroversially true--contract analysis or other limited research services, a slightly large set of cases where it could possibly be done more, in which Ethan falls, and then the vast majority that requires infrastructure, regulatory frameworks, etc, that preclude small operations or is just simply not interesting to investors or kickstarter contributors because it isn't cutesy or doesn't have an immediately obvious ROI.

  • MoBio says:


    "The main damage here is done by journalists, who create the impression that basic research can be conducted outside the NIH/NSF/university system by "mavericks" willing to do it."

    amen to that brother

  • drugmonkey says:

    "Dropping the yeast thing" is important in so far as we gain evidence whether crowd funding drives will produce even the limited results promised in the campaign. Was any yeast/meth science accomplished or not? Were the results published? Even on his website? Every crowdfund project that looks like a classic huckster scam diminishes what little enthusiasm exists among potential donors.

  • MoBio says:

    @DM and others

    I wouldn't assume he has 'dropped the yeast thing'...

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