iGEM: Money concerns

A quick post today because I’ve spent the last week at ABLE 2018 and my brain is full.  (Side note: ABLE was amazing. Looking forward to Toronto next year.)

Running an iGEM team is resource-intensive (read: costs a lot.) Here’s a breakdown of the MIT team’s budget (all numbers in USD):

Item Per-student Total (for 12 students)
Team registration 416.66 5,000
Summer stipend 4,600 55,200
Materials & supplies 500 6,000
Jamboree registration 700 8,400
Grand total 6212 74,592

A couple of notes about the above table:

  • Team registration is fixed — no matter whether the team has 3 people or 30, the cost is $5000
  • We commit to paying our team members a summer stipend — otherwise, very few of them would be able to stay the summer (and work 40 hrs/wk on the project). That is our biggest line item, but other schools may have a different situation
  • We are fortunate that we don’t have to worry about travel or housing for the Jamboree. Even so, Jamboree registration is consistently our biggest one-time expense.
  • The M&S budget is a round number based on prior experience.  We are fortunate that IDT’s iGEM sponsorship defrays most of our synthesis costs.

So yeah, that’s a lot of money.  (I am not going to dive into my feelings about how this excludes other teams who might otherwise want to participate — perhaps in a later post.)  The operative question is — where does the money come from?

In the MIT team’s case, we are fortunate to be supported by a significant amount of institutional resources:

  • ALL the iGEM team members (the undergrads, not the occasional highschool or grad student) apply for direct funding from the MIT UROP office. This is non-negotiable, because direct-funded students have their summer stipends taken care of.  The down-side is that the number of funded students fluctuates dramatically year-to-year.  This year, we had 9 undergrads apply and all 9 got funded.  Last year, we had 10 apply and only 6 were funded.  Then, we were left to find another $18,000 on short notice.
  • The Department of Biological Engineering generally chips in.  (Thanks, Doug!) This is founded on the fact that most of our students are BE students — and in the past, when we have students from other departments, we have asked the other departments (such as EECS) for support as well.  The latter has only seen mixed success.
  • We have been fortunate in the last few years to have had a number of one-off funding sources, from the MIT Media Lab and from philanthropists associated with the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research.  While we are incredibly grateful for the generosity of these donors, they don’t support us year-to-year.
  • Frequently, Ron’s grants have education and outreach components on which we can draw.
  • We generally solicit donations from companies in the area. This has never been particularly successful — I know other teams have had more success, so maybe we’re doing it wrong? What we’ve found is that companies are interested in funding particular projects instead of undergrad education more generally. That is, if we’re doing a health & medicine project, we do better asking from drug companies than from (say) energy companies.  (Aside: this seems really short-sighted. Pfizer, are you listening?)

Generally we can get our budget covered via some combination of the above sources. Unfortunately, what we are missing is a single, dependable, continuous stream of funding — what I would love is a regular contribution from the Provost, or an endowment of a million dollars from some grateful alumni. Unfortunately, this question causes major stress some years. And if a well-resourced school like MIT has trouble finding funding, I can’t imagine what it’s like at smaller schools.

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