When scientist Mona Jhaveri couldn’t find funding to commercialize her cancer research discovery, she was inspired to create a crowdfunding platform for cancer drug innovators.
Mona Jhaveri aims to crowdfund cancer away.
She’s the founder of Sound Affects, a Ridgefield, Connecticut, nonprofit launched in 2014 that hosts crowdfunding campaigns for innovative new cancer drugs. Once launched, campaigns are promoted by emerging musicians who are competing to raise the most money in order to win various prizes.
The company is still in its early stages — to date, it has hosted eight campaigns that have pulled in approximately $21,000 in all, despite goal amounts ranging from $50,000 to $500,000 per campaign. Presently, Jhaveri says she is trying to suss out “how to build campaigns that are both understandable and compelling to the concerned public” — a key element to success, she says, because most people don’t get what these innovators are working on.
She has experienced this barrier herself. Jhaveri launched biotech company Foligo Therapeutics in 2005 to work on a DNA-based therapy to treat ovarian cancer — a treatment prospect she discovered through her own clinical trials as a trained cancer researcher. But in 2010, despite her best efforts and receiving numerous awards for her work, she was forced to shut its doors due to an inability to secure funding.
One problem is that “cancer innovations tend to be quite technical,” and “the innovators who work on these projects are not accustomed to interfacing with the public,” she says. “The excitement and promise of new innovation can easily get lost in translation” — and the disconnect is harming our chances of ending the war on cancer.
Through Sound Affects, she wants to help biotech innovators complete their life-saving work.
Wandering Through the ‘Valley of Death’
Jhaveri calls herself “a cancer researcher by training.” After earning her doctorate in biochemistry from Wake Forest University in 1997, she started working in research labs. While at the National Cancer Institute, she discovered a possible treatment option for ovarian cancer. She filed a patent, but “I realized that if this is going to become anything, I can’t be in an academic lab.”
So she went out on her own, launching Foligo Therapeutics Inc. in Maryland. “I went from being a cancer researcher to a biotech entrepreneur. Those are two very distinct roles,” she says — adding that it’s a difference the average person likely doesn’t understand.
While crucial cancer research is performed in labs, Jhaveri explains, it’s the biotech innovators and entrepreneurs who get a product ready for FDA approval. After that, pharmaceutical companies manufacture and sell medicines. “That chain of events has to happen for every discovery, in order for it to have the legs to move forward,” she adds.
But serving as that connecting piece was far more difficult than she anticipated. “One of the big problems in that journey is finding funding for early-stage biotech companies. It’s extremely difficult.” She saw, firsthand, the pipeline breakdown. “It’s not that we don’t have enough funding for research,” she says, but rather, a lack of financial support for entrepreneurs who would see those efforts developed commercially
For a time, Foligo Therapeutics had “small-ish” pools of funds to tap into, “sufficient to get a lab and hire some people.” She ran a lean operation for a time, working off of grants and money won from women’s business competitions like Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. But she struggled to explain her early-stage discovery to investors. She kept getting tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash infusions — but needed millions.
Worse, “of the folks that do get funding, it’s only a handful of of people from a handful of institutions, that live in certain areas of the country.” So, she adds, “if you’re in Kansas where the VC money doesn’t flow, for example, you’re not going to get investments.” And it’s worse, still, for women and minorities, she points out. “What does move forward has less to do with what our needs are and more to do with who launched it, and where.”
[Related: The Story Exchange on Women in STEM]
She refers to the resulting funding gap as the “valley of death” — the place for those who “have an idea, but don’t have critical funds to move forward.” She adds, “Great ideas are falling into the valley, never to be realized, and it’s to the detriment of society.”
Jhaveri found herself in a situation where “it took too long, there was too little money, with too many strings attached.” She realized that “we needed a place where innovators can raise the capital they need, and do what they need to do on their own terms,” and set out to form Sound Affects.
Relationships as the Key
Jhaveri envisioned a crowdfunding platform for biotech innovators that was promoted by up-and-comers in the music industry — ones who would push campaigns on their busy social media pages and win prizes for raising the largest sums of money.
She is a lifelong music fan — which is what inspired her to team up with artists — but as a cancer researcher with no musical background, she realized she needed lots of help to give that idea legs. So she started making connections within the music industry, to make working with Sound Affects an attractive prospect. “The goal was to serve these emerging artists as they serve us — to give them something that would help them, as they help us get the word out.”
To galvanize musicians into action, Jhaveri first teamed up with Reverb Nation, an artist portal that reaches music-makers from all genres and parts of the world. She is friends with one of its co-founders, who works Sound Affects’ calls to action into its far-reaching email blasts.
She also worked out a two-fold partnership with video platform Vevo. First, Sound Affects earns ad revenue from its “artist” page, which features musicians’ videos that show both performances and the singer talking about cancer research. The nonprofit also has plans to run 15-second ads on videos throughout Vevo’s platform. In addition, Jhaveri recently got an “in” at Republic Records, where executives have agreed to meet with fundraising winners about their work. “The record label was the trump card,” she says.
Relationships are also crucial to keeping Sound Affects up and running. Jhaveri is its sole full-time employee — all other tasks, from social media management and site design to bookkeeping and video production, are performed by contractors. “We rely on partnerships to help support outreach and campaign vetting,” she adds. “We have a number of informal advisers who offer valuable insight and make key introductions.”
As her relationships at Republic Records continue to develop, Jhaveri hopes Sound Affects will make a bigger splash in 2019. She also has plans to forge more strategic partnerships for artist perks and strike more money-making deals to fund the nonprofit’s work.
But one goal rises above the others: to see a campaign meet, or even exceed, its goal amount. “We need one to succeed, to see what the magic is and replicate, then expand up on that,” she says.
Success, for her, is not just personal — it’s also about making strides in the war on cancer, and creating a better future for her two young children. To that aim, Sound Affects wants to elevate “innovators who have something in hand, and who are addressing a real, unmet need,” and help them “communicate in a way that people can understand.”
And one day, Jhaveri hopes to be at the helm of the “Kickstarter for cancer.”
Posted: January 16, 2019