February 24, 2021

Reimagining the Research Lab

Musings on building an independent research lab

I’ve got a few friends interested in building research labs right now. Matt Webb is the most visible:

These are notes towards setting up a research lab that doesn’t yet exist. It doesn’t need to exist; I’m learning by writing, and what I learn might lead anywhere (or nowhere).

In my Thingscon talk I ended with this call:

What we need are visions of the future of technology that are values-driven, but we don’t need just design fictions. We need business model fictions, engineering feasibility study fictions, interop protocol specification fictions,

Matt goes on to ponder what it would take:

Talking about the team is a long way downstream from what matters - the outcomes - but it’s worth sketching out. What is this… 8-10 people plus a strong commissioning budget?

This is a fine way to structure and fund a research lab. It might be the best way! It’s certainly the most well understood.

But what about some other ways?

I’m inspired by Nadia’s post reimagining the PhD, essentially creating a personal assemblage of learning funded by a mixture of sources:

I’d describe my time from 2015-2020 (when the book will be published) in three distinct phases:

  • Phase I: 2015-2016: Discovery, exploration, initial research, hypothesis generation (funded by the Ford Foundation)
  • Phase II: 2016-2018: Experience, experimenting, hypothesis testing (working at GitHub)
  • Phase III: 2018-2020: Refining, summarizing, consolidation (funded by Protocol Labs)

And by Andy’s notes on life as an independent researcher:

When I left Khan Academy in early 2019, my (very understanding) wife and I made a rough plan: in 2019, I’d focus on the work and avoid thinking about funding at all; in 2020, I’d figure out some plan for sustainability and begin moving towards it; hopefully by the end of 2021, we’d stop burning cash. My collaborator Michael Nielsen suggested we set up a Patreon to solicit funding for our work, and I agreed, not thinking much of it. He’s now moved on, but I’m quite grateful to him for that early nudge.

Less than two years later, my patrons have crowdfunded roughly a graduate student’s fellowship grant. It’s not lucrative, but it’s enough to cover my living expenses. That’s an important milestone! So long as this income stream continues, my runway has been extended indefinitely—or at least until I start getting nervous about not being able to save. My goal was to end 2020 with a plan for how to eventually fund my work, but I’m astonished to now find myself ending 2020 with solid funding in hand.

These models are great - bridging self-directed work, working in public and subscription revenue from individuals - but we’ve yet to see many examples of this working beyond the individual.

Well, actually that’s not quite true.

We’re beginning to see individual creators bundling together (e.g. the everything bundle), and there are examples of companies that are at least partially audience-funded (e.g.’s investment campaign).

Building an Independent Research Lab

So, what if we combined these ideas to imagine an independent research lab that’s funded (at least partially) by their audience?

Phase 1: Audience-research fit. I’m imagining that the best way to get started is to announce a paid subscription newsletter. It’s essentially proving there’s an audience-research fit for the work. Thinking about, exploring and sketching ideas and thoughts. Matt already blogs like a machine so this should be easy. Importantly at this step - it’s about gathering subscribers that want the research notes but also want to pre-fund the research lab.

Phase 2: Small artefacts. Just like NPR does a pledge drive I think you could run some small crowd-funding campaigns to fund the work against some deliberate research streams. Matt has some ideas already (“a proof of concept of a zero-data connected product platform”!) and I think you could easily imagine these being self-contained enough to run a small crowd-funding campaign around. Those funds would essentially allow you to bring together a small team to focus on the problem for a defined length of time. Nice.

Phase 3: Team assemblage. Here’s where the analogy to the everything bundle starts to get interesting. If phase 1 & 2 work then you may end up in the situation where you could actually assemble a few different independent researchers together. This is where you begin to move from independent researcher to independent research lab. What if there’s a handful of folks all doing step 1? If you’re far enough along you might realistically bundle together a few and.. hey presto you have a research lab!

A crazy idea? Perhaps. But folks like Matt who already have blogging skillz and a proven track record might be able to pull it off.

Mixing Individual & Institutional Backers

One unresolved tension here is how to mix individual backers with institutional backers. Andy covered his first year’s expenses via a grant from Emergent Ventures for example. This might be a strong argument for a more sophisticated platform than Substack to run the subscriptions through - ideally you’d like some nice way to combine individual backers and institutional backers.

And maybe there’s a way to put consulting inside this research frame also? Ben Pieratt’s live pre-brand experiments are intriguing as as a new model of funding work and working in public.

Research Director as Showrunner

This whole idea works because I think there’s a strong analogy between the research director of a research lab and a showrunner / worldbuilder. I’m no expert but I have a hunch that research labs only succeed with a strong willed, opinionated research director at the helm who can steer the vision, create worlds before they’re ready and secure funding.

Why not do that in public with a mixture of individual and institutional backers?

Matt - how long would it take you to raise 7 figures of funding to get your research lab off the ground? Compared with how long it would take you to raise 6 figures from subscribers willing to make a few initial bets?

Just a thought.

Update #1: Andy points me to Martin’s blog where he says this:

You might be wondering: even if I get enough Patreon funding to cover my own living expenses, it seems unlikely that I will be able to crowdfund a team of five to ten people. Fortunately, I have found over the last years that collaboration does not require all team members to be funded out of the same purse. I constantly collaborate with people without being responsible for their payroll. In open source, it is common for contributors to a project to be employed by several different organisations, and indeed such diversity makes projects better and more resilient.

I work closely with the Ink & Switch lab, who have their own funding. Some of my collaborators are PhD students who have their own stipends, or research fellows who have their own grants. We come together because of our common interests, and because nobody is trying to profit from the others. We have a vision of the future that we want to realise, and the funding just lets us pay the bills as we work towards the greater goal.


Update #2: Perhaps a more interesting and relevant model for organizations being crowd-funded is not but Athens Research which has a full community-funding model in place….

Update #3: Peter has some great thoughts in his response:

If you attempt to approach an area of research with the wrong type of funding, it will invariably fail. Any money isn’t necessarily better than no money. The right type of money is better than no money.

In other words:

I think there’s a real and important role to play for publicly funded, but largely independent research labs. 

Update #4: Matt has blogged some inspiration and collected 14 research studios he’s keeping an eye on:

Update #5: Sam posted a great little list of research studios and Ben too.

Update #6: This Hacker News thread is worth a read: Ask HN: Anybody Started a Research Institute?

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This post was written by Tom Critchlow - blogger and independent consultant. Subscribe to join my occassional newsletter: