Penn State

Crowdfunding jump-starts Penn State projects

A Penn State student has an idea.

Maybe it’s the germ of a new technology. Maybe it’s a way to take the information from the classroom and put it into practice in the real world. Maybe it’s just a thought about how to lend a hand making something happen.

Whatever it is, there is always one thing that stands between inspiration and implementation. Money. Who can afford to spend $5,000, $10,000 or even more to make a good idea become a great accomplishment?

But what if, little by little, dollar by dollar, other people were able to help kick in to take a campus project from drawing board to finished product?

That’s how crowdfunding has come to Penn State.

“A lot of people giving marginally small gifts can add up to a big impact for a specific idea,” said Geoff Hallett, assistant director of annual giving.

Crowdfunding isn’t that new. Kickstarter is 6 years old. GoFundMe is 5. Locally, campaigns have been started to bolster businesses like the Autoport, fund entrepreneurial projects like the Ares Drones app, give back to the families of fallen first responders and fire victims and help rebuild the Boalsburg cemetery after it was vandalized.

But at Penn State, using it to bolster educational programs and research is something new.

“It’s another valuable resource for entrepreneurs who may be struggling to put together a funding package to launch their ideas,” said Penn State President Eric Barron. “In the world of creation and innovation, sometimes all that stands between a good idea and a groundbreaking idea is cash flow.”

It took about a year to put together, after two years of planning, but the university’s crowdfunding portal just finished its trial run.

“There’s a lot happening, big and small, cool ideas floating all around in the Penn State universe,” said Hallett. “We wanted to offer a platform that offered a way for those projects to get some attention, to put a voice to those ideas.”

Like Maya Evanitsky’s attempt to map the genome of the now extinct wild cats that once inhabited central Pennsylvania, the origins of the Nittany Lion mascot.

Making that happen would cost $12,000 — the cost of obtaining samples and going through the painstaking process of extracting and sequencing the DNA.

On April 13, Evanitsky was excited, talking about her plans while she harvested a sample of biological material from a 160-year-old stuffed lion at the Penn State All-Sports Museum, but when asked what would happen if she didn’t get enough money in her fundraising, she faltered. Without enough money, her research could fall through.

That seems unlikely now. As of Monday evening, with two days to go, Evanitsky was just $565 short of her goal.

“We are in the final push for the crowdfunding and hopefully we make our goal,” said her adviser, assistant professor of anthropology and biology George Perry.

More than money, however, he also sees the project as raising the profile of the work of the university’s ancient DNA lab.

“It has been great to involve the community and have so many people supporting and participating in the project. The awareness that we've raised will also likely benefit our science and conservation outreach activities, once we have the results from the study,” Perry said.

It isn’t just students that seek help through USEED. Gong Chen, the Verne M. Willaman chair for Penn State life sciences, took a project online to get help for his research in brain injury treatment to make the journey from theory to practice a little faster.

He fell a bit short of his $50,000 goal, but only a little, raising $45,729.

In a regular crowdfunding campaign, that might mean that no money actually changes hands. In the USEED project, however, Hallett says that all transactions go toward the project whether it is fully funded or not, and there are no fees.

If a project needs a boost, Hallett said, his office can try to help secure additional funding in another way, but every penny secured through crowdsourcing frees the university to find ways to pay for other projects.

The USEED pilot program originally was intended for 10 projects. It ended up with 12.

Some were fully funded, like the $6,450 raised to pay for “fast farming,” a drought-resistant agriculture venture that actually came in above its goal. Others, like putting a fire pit at Penn State Altoona’s Seminar Forest, raised less than needed and will go to other funding sources.

Some are still on the table, like an emergency assistance fund for students at Penn State Harrisburg (now $2,585 short of its goal), a global health initiative that still needs $3,220 to send students to Tanzania, Senegal and South Africa, and a way to bring fresh water to the Dominican Republic that is one-third of the way to the $50,000 it needs to buy materials and pay for student travel.

“When those get to their goal, or get close, we get really excited. We can only do so much for everyone. When they put in that hard work and that effort, it gives us that much more motivation to raise money for everything else,” Hallett said.

Over the summer, the university wants to review the pilot program to see what worked and what could be done better before relaunching a new batch of projects in the fall.