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Local website aspires to be the Match.com of scientific research

The website’s founders are, from left, Michelle Bauer, a communications strategist, Larry Biddle, the Web guru who says SciFlies.org is patterned closely after dating websites, and David Fries, who is on the faculty of USF’s College of Marine Science. “This is not an investment,” Fries said of the crowd sourcing. “It is a gift.”

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

The website’s founders are, from left, Michelle Bauer, a communications strategist, Larry Biddle, the Web guru who says SciFlies.org is patterned closely after dating websites, and David Fries, who is on the faculty of USF’s College of Marine Science. “This is not an investment,” Fries said of the crowd sourcing. “It is a gift.”

Dr. James Mortimer is a University of South Florida researcher in Tampa who thinks exercise and nutrition can help brains grow fast enough to fight off the symptoms of Alzheimer's disease. He envisions the day when people visit prevention centers to learn, based on their genes, what foods and exercise best ward off dementia.

But some of his research needs funding.

So Mortimer won approval to post a research project on a new website called www.SciFlies.org. The St. Petersburg-based creation aims to demystify scientists and encourage donors from the general public to make small contributions to specific scientific research projects that catch their personal eye.

The grass roots site reflects an emerging trend based on so-called crowd sourcing and crowd funding. It's aimed at boosting public giving to scientific research and reducing the heavy dependence of scientists on federal funding and foundation grants.

Mortimer's project, for example, seeks $10,000 through small dollar donations on SciFlies.org by August 2011. Mortimer calls the website's approach "incredibly clever." Seven projects so far appear on SciFlies' new site but more are coming.

"We have a situation where the government is running short of money to fund scientists, and foundations are probably less generous," he says. Because SciFlies is a nonprofit organization, donations are tax-deductible.

But will it work? Can enough people — thousands need to get involved — already busy and, like many adults wary of advanced science, be persuaded to take a look at SciFlies.org and donate to a specific research project?

That's the hope of three St. Petersburg folks that created SciFlies.org. David Fries, 50, is on the faculty of the USF's College of Marine Science and has spun out several successful companies from technologies developed there. He says SciFlies.org can facilitate research and alter the public's perception of how scientific research works.

"This is not an investment," says Fries. "It is a gift."

Partnering with Fries is Larry Biddle, 69, the Web guru who says SciFlies.org is patterned closely after dating websites. Search for what's most attractive — among scientific projects, that is — then make a financial commitment. Biddle was a director for Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, which introduced the power of the Internet to national politics.

"We want to democratize scientific research and bring it out of the closet," Biddle says.

Michelle Bauer, 44, a communications strategist, rounds out the group as head of the Common Language consulting firm. She is responsible for marketing SciFlies.org to the public and making sure its scientific content is understandable — no easy task — to the average person.

SciFlies.org got its start thanks to a gift from wealthy tech entrepreneur Michael C. Lewis. He started and sold a semiconductor business, and later a video game company called Cryptic Studios.

SciFlies is not alone. In California, Eureka Fund launched late last year with similar goals of matching small donations to university research.

Eureka head Jason Blue-Smith says SciFlies only further validates the new public way to fund scientific research. Adds Blue-Smith: "The more the merrier."

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Local website aspires to be the Match.com of scientific research 09/27/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, September 28, 2010 4:41pm]
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