New Start-Up Aims to Fill Funding Gap for Space Projects

The International Space Station is featured in this image photographed by an STS-134 crew member on the space shuttle Endeavour after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation on May 29, 2011.
The International Space Station is featured in this image photographed by an STS-134 crew member on the space shuttle Endeavour after the station and shuttle began their post-undocking relative separation on May 29, 2011. (Image credit: NASA)

A new start-up company is hoping to ride the crowdsourcing wave to privately raise millions of dollars to fund scientific research, space exploration projects and other educational initiatives.

The company, called Uwingu (which means "sky" in Swahili), was founded by a team of noted astronomers, planetary scientists, educators and other industry officials. The idea was to create new ways for people to receive funding for innovative projects beyond the existing grants infrastructure.

"It started a couple years back, and central to it was the idea that there really isn't an alternative for space researchers and educators other than NASA, and a bit from the National Science Foundation," said Alan Stern, a planetary scientist and the former associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "So, people are really living and dying in those fields by what happens to NASA's budget. We thought, why can't we create a 21st century way to provide an alternative?"

Stern became one of the founders of Uwingu, and he's in good company. The team includes space historian Andrew Chaikin, exoplanet hunter Geoff Marcy, who is also chair of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program, and Pamela Gay, a noted astronomer and educator.

With NASA ensnared in a tight budgetary environment, some agency programs, such as planetary science, are falling victim to sweeping cuts. Stern and his colleagues are hoping that funds raised through Uwingu could provide alternatives or a safety net in these situations. But, the possibilities don't stop there. [Planetary Science Takes a Hit in 2013 (Infographic)]

"We think this will evolve in really interesting ways," Stern told "Some of it will be helping out people who are struggling through budget cuts, some people may be seeking supplemental funding to what they got from NASA or NSF, others may have some projects that are too risky for NASA to fund and they don't make it through their review panel."

As such, the primary goal is to provide more options for the scientific community.

"We would love to be a parallel stream," Stern said. "We can be quite a force, and we would love that, but it's not meant to replace or compete with anything — it's an adjunct. If it's a four-lane highway now, we want to add a fifth lane. We're not going to compete with billion dollars programs, but in our own small way, we can start to make new inroads."

Uwingu aims to award money through in a selection process similar to NASA and the National Science Foundation. The company will issue a request for proposals, and a peer review panel will select various projects for funding.

"The projects may be very small," Stern said, "but $1,000 can make a big difference to a school, and $10,000 can make a huge difference to a graduate student.

But first, Uwingu needs help from the public. The company has launched an ambitious crowdsourcing campaign to raise at least $75,000 to officially launch the company and fund its operation.

"We've initially funded the company like a lot of start-ups, as in the founders wrote checks, and people are doing the work on their own time," Stern explained. "But, if the company drowns in the first two months paying internet bills, it doesn’t do anybody any good. We have to get to a point where we're self-sustaining, and that's what this campaign is about."

If all goes according to plan, Uwingu hopes to launch a marketing drive and bring its first project to the market in the fall.

From there, the sky, as Uwingu's name suggests, is the limit.

To contribute to the project, or to learn more about Uwingu's mission, people can visit the company's site on Indiegogo here:

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Denise Chow
NBC News science writer

Denise Chow is a former staff writer who then worked as assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. She spent two years with, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions, before joining the Live Science team in 2013. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University. At NBC News, Denise covers general science and climate change.