A Step-By-Step Guide to Successfully Financing Your iGEM Team
By Kevin Fan, Finance Director of UMaryland iGEM 2015
"Kevin has successfully started several non-profit companies focused on enhancing science education among younger students. From his experiences, he has had prior training in accounting, management, and leadership. He is thus uniquely qualified to address the topic of acquiring team funding, which he does so in the following piece."
-- Iowis Zhu, President of UMaryland iGEM 2015
Fundraising is a critical component to successfully navigating the iGEM competition season. It is perhaps one of the most important yet underappreciated activities of any organization. Like lab work, fundraising is not a straightforward process, and will lead to many dead ends and failed attempts before bearing fruit. In writing this guide, I hope to make fundraising fun and easy for your team. This guide will walk you through the process that UMaryland went through to successfully meet our fundraising targets and send 16 members to with money to spare, and includes the actual documents we sent to our sponsors to solicit funds.
Before delving into the fundraising process, there are a few documents and analyses that you need to prepare. First and foremost is a Budget Plan for all expected expenditures leading up to the competition. This will vary from team to team, but generally will include registration fees, lab expenses, and expenses related to travel, food, and lodging. Some teams may want to include a stipend for their students as well. UMaryland iGEM’s 2015 Budget Plan is linked below.
Note that many of the values in the Budget Plan, particularly the registration and lab expenses, can be highly variable and flexible.
After you figure out how much money you will need, the next step is to prepare an Executive Summary. This should be a one-page document detailing your mission and goals. Keep your audience in mind when writing the executive summary: what kind of initiatives do deans, department chairs, and corporate leaders want to give money to? There’s no need to go into heavy detail about the science behind your work; instead, emphasize the impact iGEM has on students and the community. UMaryland iGEM’s 2015 Executive Summary is linked below.
The executive summary is great for professional use, but creating a Brochure can be a more effective way to reach out to people. Brochures, in general, are easier and more interesting to read, and is more likely to captivate the audience. UMaryland iGEM’s 2015 Brochure is linked below.
Last, but not least, compiling a Video is a good way to spread the message to a large number of people. If your video is interesting, people will want to watch it and share it, creating organic growth that your team can take advantage of to make money. Having a video is also a critical component of crowdfunding. UMaryland iGEM’s 2014 Video is below.
Crowdfunding is the practice of funding a project or venture by raising monetary contributions from a large number of people, typically via the internet. As a revenue stream it can be hit or miss. How well it does depends solely on how well you advertise it. UMaryland iGEM 2015 used a University-run crowdsourcing program called LaunchUMD. You can explore our crowdfunding effort for our 2014 project by clicking the image below. Our team reached out to over 200 donors to reach our funding goal. Again, having a video is key to making crowdfunding work.
The first place you should look to fund your school’s iGEM team is the school itself! Most schools would be happy to give a few thousand dollars to send its students to an international synthetic biology conference. UMaryland iGEM 2015 received funding from the Integrated Life Science Honors Program, the Fischell Department of Bioengineering, the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences, and the Clark School of Engineering. Since we have a diverse group of students consisting of business, biology, bioengineering, computer science, nutrition, public health, biochemistry, and entrepreneurship students, we were able to tap into the coffers of multiple academic departments. Convince your university to give money by talking about how an international conference can further your careers and enhance your educations, as well as bring positive media attention to the school.
There are many corporations out there that would be happy to help students, but it’s really hard to get a hold of them unless you know a key contact. For UMaryland iGEM, we found a contact with MedImmune and Dupont.
Although UMaryland iGEM 2015 did not apply to any grants this year, we did apply to the Maryland Leadership and Discovery Grant in 2014, our inaugural year. Grants can take a while to process, so start them very early in the competition season. Try to have them submitted by early Spring at the latest.
Account for a very small portion of the fundraising. It is unlikely that any individual will contribute more than a few hundred dollars. I was able to give a presentation at the Gaithersburg Rotary Club about a topic we were researching that was of interest to them, and they featured us in their newsletter. I’m not sure if anybody donated because of that, but individual donations en masse can add up to a significant sum.
I’ve heard of other iGEM teams selling products or services to make money. UMaryland has never done that before, but the summer science camp is a very lucrative business that we may look into in the future.
Don’t have any corporate connections? No worries, the shotgun approach is a systematic way to contact a large number of companies without becoming discouraged or fatigued. It allows you to send a personalized email to each company without spending hours researching that company. Furthermore, this method breaks down the outreach process into manageable chunks and applies assembly-line kinetics to simplify this complex task. It takes a bit of time to set up, but will save time in the long run.
1. Create a list of your team’s core competencies. Using this, create several different draft emails that you can potentially send to companies. These drafts should highlight one or two aspects of your project that could really resonate with the receiver.
2. Create a list of your funding sources. Below is an example of the kind of list we had. The actual document had over 200 biotech companies on it.
3. Flesh out the list as much as possible. Assign one member to actively seek out companies. This member’s role is solely to find and list companies along with their contact information.
4. Another member goes down the list and does research on the individual companies, and notes which of your team’s core competencies this company would be interested in.
5. A third member writes and sends out emails.
6. Follow up on emails after two weeks.
It is important to keep track of how much money you have, how much you expect to gain, and how much you expect to spend. UMaryland iGEM used an accrual system of accounting in 2015. The Chart of Accounts is shown below. This is probably more complex than you would need to/want to use, but I had taken some business accounting courses and was itching to actually use what I learned. The advantage of accrual accounting is demonstrable when you need to keep track of more than one cash account (we kept our cash in two accounts, highlighted in yellow), several sets of imminent cash inflows, and imminent payments to multiple parties.
This is a snapshot of some of the assets we held in July.
Some of the most expensive elements to iGEM are team member registrations. UMaryland iGEM registered 16 members in 2015. After all expenditures, you should have left enough money to start up next year’s iGEM team.
1. Maintain a good relationship with your account manager. As a student, I didn’t have direct access to any of the accounts we had, so it was really difficult trying to keep track of cash flows.
2. Get a set of business cards. They are very cheap to produce, and add a highly professional touch to any networking or fundraising interaction.
3. START EARLY! We probably missed out on $5,000 - $10,000 because some connections were formed too late. Also, not having any money inflows for the first half of summer is extremely stressful.
4. Buy a domain name. It's much easier to type in "umdigem.com" than "http://2015.igem.org/Team:UMaryland", and gives your team a cleaner touch.
5. Expect to fail. Expect to be ignored. Unless someone explicitly tells you no, don't give up! That being said, courtesy dictates that you send no more than one soliciting email per week.
6. Part of fundraising is networking. The larger your social network, the more people you can reach out to. Try to attend networking events whenever possible.
This guide is meant as a walkthrough for your team's fundraising efforts, and is designed to complement the existing iGEM fundraising guide by Andrew Hessel. In writing this, I tried not to re-state any of the information that was already on the Hessel guide. http://2008.igem.org/Funding