How DeSci, DAOs, and NFTs will change research funding, intellectual property, and collaboration.
Decades of Moore’s Law are bringing powerful, mind-blowing scientific equipment within everyone’s grasp—think Fitbit, Oura Rings, and whole-genome sequencing, for starters. Amateur experimenters, citizen scientists, biohackers, and all the other “personal scientists” like me in the world are performing experiments so quickly that traditional science can barely keep up.
The technology industry brims with successful twenty-somethings who upended long-standing industries with brand new companies and ideas. One reason: the funding model. Tech companies thrive in a rich ecosystem of risk-taking venture capitalists and angel investors eager to bet on multiple seemingly harebrained ideas, knowing that an occasional hit will make up for many duds.
Now a group of scientists and amateurs want to upend the existing government-academia-industry model of scientific funding by using blockchain, the same technology that powers cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. Anyone can participate in this new world of decentralized science, dubbed “DeSci,” and as a longtime personal scientist myself, I’ve recently joined a few of these groups. What I found was surprising—and encouraging.
A successful business collects more money than it spends. Normally the difference between incoming revenue and expenses—the profit—is shared among the owners as a return on the up-front risks they took, including the investment they made in equipment and supplies, marketing, and employee salaries. Getting that up-front money initially can be hard, and usually involves a loan or investment from somebody who must be convinced in advance that the money and effort will be worthwhile. In business, the definition of success is clear: You either make money or you don’t.
Anyone who creates a unit of knowledge that might be useful to science can issue an NFT to establish ownership.
But scientific research, especially basic research, is more of a long game. Success can be much harder to measure in the short term, and even failure can push the field forward. If after a long and expensive clinical experiment, researchers conclude that a drug doesn’t work, was that a failure? Although the funders don’t get their money back, the knowledge gained can be useful to the next experiment, which may well turn into a huge hit. But a research economy based strictly on dollars has no way to reimburse the original unsuccessful attempt.
Is blockchain a better way?
Underpinning the financial façade of today’s cryptocurrencies lies a unique technical framework that can be applied to much more than money—an ownerless or “trustless” database called a blockchain. Clever programming, based on unbreakable cryptographic encoding lets blockchains securely store new kinds of intellectual property without bosses or middlemen: non-fungible tokens (aka NFTs like the Bored Ape Yacht Club images), decentralized finance (DeFi) entities that perform many of the traditional functions of banks and stockbrokers, and decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs).
Owning bitcoin (or other cryptocurrency) means knowing a password that lets you transfer a number from one bitcoin address to another. All bitcoin addresses and their current values are kept in a file called a “block,” identical copies of which are held in every bitcoin-enabled node on the network. Each block is updated through a consensus mechanism that ensures all nodes maintain identical blocks.
With bitcoin, invented in 2009, the blocks store nothing but numbers that represent the total bitcoins held by each address. Since then, newer blockchains like Ethereum and Solana have been invented that, instead of numbers, can hold entire computer programs called “smart contracts” that execute each time a new block is created.
Smart contracts, once deployed, can never be altered or faked. With the right programming, they can stand in for roles that traditionally required people and money. They can be turned into tokens, a medium of exchange that can securely keep track of the value of things without a central organization. NFTs are simply one kind of token, which are mathematically associated with a specific owner on the blockchain in a way that can’t be forged and doesn’t require a central government or anyone else to enforce it.
In fact, you can build an entire community with people happily exchanging products and services without a “boss.” DAOs are popping up throughout the technology world, as groups of people use blockchains as the basis for collective action that would normally be too complicated to pull off in a less trusted environment.
Nobody’s “in charge” at theCaféDAO in Seattle, for instance. Instead, members earn tokens that entitle them to ownership percentages based on their contributions to the collective purpose of the DAO. In this case, members earn tokens for various activities like designing the space or printing posters, scouting out property, or conducting the marketing. The equipment and real estate is purchased through smart contracts paid in exchange for a percentage of the sales after the shop opens. Could the same idea help science?
An NFT for your IP
Here’s how DeSci works: Anyone who creates a unit of knowledge that might be useful to science can issue an NFT to establish ownership. That knowledge can take many forms, whether as a traditional academic paper, for example, or something more simple like an Excel file that contains results of a survey. Just as an artist might issue an NFT version of a painting, this “DeSci NFT” is an indelible, permanent record of when and how it was created, and can be bought or sold like any other token.
A scientist who builds on another scientist’s work can recognize their dependence by pointing to the other’s NFT. In that sense, DeSci NFTs are similar to the existing system of citations in academic publishing, where scientists are careful to list references to work that they relied upon in their current paper. But unlike citations, NFTs can apply to anything of scientific value and can be explicit in the way they allocate credit. If I issue an NFT to announce the results of my latest glucose experiments and somebody later references my contribution in their own study, the NFT they issue could thank me by assigning some of the credit. If, eventually, a lifesaving drug were to come out of this, I would automatically own some tiny portion of the resulting revenue. Importantly, my share remains even if my contribution later turns out to be a dead end. Similarly, my overall share of the final result reflects the share of those who build on my work. This is similar to the way today’s scientists look at citation count as a measure of importance, with one key difference: Any intellectual property spoils can be shared among all contributors, even if they are competitors. It’s not just winner take all.
DeSci DAOs work the same way. Instead of funding a traditional lab based at a university or company with a hierarchical structure led by a principal investigator (PI) or director and a formal hiring process requiring advanced degrees or other credentials, anyone can join and participate in a DeSci lab. The terms of a DeSci DAO (distributed autonomous organization) will specify tasks and rewards—paid in tokens—all stamped on a blockchain. Complete the task, get the tokens. Of course, some of the tasks will require specialized knowledge, training, or equipment just like in a real lab, but nobody can stop you from trying. When a series of tasks results in some intellectual property, ownership goes to the entire DAO, with each member’s share proportional to the number of tokens they hold. If that IP is sold or licensed, the revenue comes right back to the DAO and its token holders.
Although they look roughly like ownership shares in a traditional business, rules for tokens are more flexible and are decided entirely by the token holders themselves, enforced through smart contracts on an immutable blockchain. Decisions in a typical business are usually made by a small group of management insiders who, being human, can sometimes hand out favors unfairly. DAO decisions are made by pre-determined smart contracts which, once specified, can’t be rigged.
That’s the theory at least. Of course an NFT-based DeSci credit system depends on giving appropriate credit to its predecessors—but that’s true of today’s academic publishing as well. Serious scientists want to credit their forebears, if only to demonstrate that their current work is built on a solid foundation.
What about fraud or abuse? Fake results can be put on the blockchain as easily as real ones. Unscrupulous or perhaps well-meaning but naive researchers can post misleading or false conclusions. Again, this is true of current science as well: Science recently reported disturbing evidence that decades worth of Alzheimer’s research may be based on doctored images.
In a DeSci world, the indelible nature of the blockchain closes off many sources of outright fraud. Smart contracts, by eliminating humans from the loop, can’t be bribed or intimidated, for example. Each step of the process, from original raw data to final therapeutic, is permanently stamped on an unalterable blockchain record, making the doctoring of data impossible. And DAO decisions about which research to fund in the first place are made collectively, not in some secret meeting of insiders.
VitaDAO for longevity science
One of the first and most successful of these new smart-contract-based organizations is coming for longevity science.
Most of today’s biotech science is ultimately paid for by sales of new therapeutics. General purpose longevity treatments—a pill that makes you younger—can’t be approved because regulators focus on measurable symptoms, like wrinkles or memory loss. It’s much harder to prove that a pill “makes you younger”. Without approval, insurance companies and Medicare won’t pay—effectively eliminating all hope for the future revenue stream that can justify the up-front development costs.
Worse, says Tyler Golato, an anti-aging therapeutics biochemist and early DeSci proponent, many promising discoveries don’t even get far enough to languish in a “valley of death,” unable to proceed from the discovery phase to the expensive clinical trials necessary to bring them to the rest of us.
VitaDAO is trying to upend this system using smart contracts. Anyone can join the DAO and earn tokens—called $VITA—for performing various activities, like making a research plan or conducting experiments. Earn 40 $VITA by adding timestamps to their YouTube videos. Earn 500 for evaluating a potential longevity project as a senior reviewer. You can also buy or sell $VITA on many crypto exchanges. (One $VITA was worth about $1.20 in early August 2022.)
So far, more than 5,000 people have joined VitaDAO as members, with sales of $VITA bringing more than $9 million to the jointly owned treasury, which is now funding $2.5 million worth of longevity research across more than 14 projects. VitaDAO members vote on how to spend the treasury money, mostly by funding real-world research projects.
DAO decisions about which research to fund in the first place are made collectively, not in some secret meeting of insiders.
Finally, all the patentable IP generated through this process is owned collectively by the DAO. When or if a major money-making project results from the DAO-funded research, the income will revert back to the VitaDAO owners.
Importantly, nobody’s in charge—the entire DAO is self-run through predetermined rules enforced by smart contracts. To raise real-world money for funding operations, some of the $VITA was sold on crypto exchanges in June 2021, but 70 percent of the supply is still “unminted”—left to future DAO votes to agree on an allocation process.
Signing up for myself was easy. I joined their Discord and introduced myself. They gave me a few simple onboarding tasks (e.g., write a few paragraphs about website improvements I’d like to see), for which they paid a starter amount of 10 $VITA. I gave them my Ethereum wallet address and they deposited the tokens. Very easy!
So far my measly contributions to VitaDAO don’t make me a major decision maker, but the more work I put in—hosting group discussions, bringing new research ideas—the more cred I earn in the form of $VITA. If I think of an idea with potential for extending human lifespan, DAO rules specify how I can put my proposal to a vote, and if approved, the DAO will fund it. That’s exactly the process that led to approval of VitaDAO’s first research project: $250,000 paid to researchers who will test some existing drug compounds for their effect on longevity.
I’ve since joined several other DAOs, including Molecule for life sciences (4,500 members, $10M in funding) and CureDAO, for crowdsourcing cures for chronic diseases. There are dozens more, with new ones created daily, from PsyDAO (for psychedelics research) to HairDAO (hoping to cure baldness). Others are directed at scientists themselves, like Halogen, hoping to replace scientific journals, and LabDAO, a community of lab spaces.
The rules for each DAO are different, but generally they all follow the same ethic of openness: Anyone can join, participate in tasks, and vote to control the direction of the DAO. Like all online communities, DAOs can suffer from spam and inappropriate behavior, but the tokens are the ultimate form of discipline. Because each token—voting power—is apportioned based on a user’s contribution, my experience is that people tend to treat the project more seriously than in online communities where talking is the only currency.
To frustrated bench researchers tired of waiting for funding scraps, the new DeSci world seems full of promise—but there are downsides too. All democracies, including DAOs, risk falling to mob rule: The crowd can sometimes be suckered into wrong-headed schemes that would be skipped by a more sober centralized leader. DeSci is too young to have examples of that yet but its slightly older DeFi brother has already seen billion dollar collapses of what now look like pure Ponzi schemes.
The software that orders DAOs and NFTs is flexible and can change much faster than the organizations supporting traditional science. DAOs can experiment with new techniques like quadratic voting, for example, that can soften the blunt power of top influencers. It’s hard to create a new university or research lab, even harder to start one with boldly original rules. New DAOs of any flavor can be created in the time it takes to set up a new Discord. Like the ongoing explosion of new tech startups in the aftermath of the massive decentralization caused by the internet, expect DAOs to continue their organizational experiments until something succeeds.
Editor’s note: This story was updated on Aug. 27, 2022 to correct the number of VitaDao projects funded.