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Obtaining Funding For A Full-Time Personal Project

By br284 in Culture
Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 05:51:47 AM EST
Tags: Help! (Ask Kuro5hin) (all tags)
Help! (Ask Kuro5hin)

This year, as part of my Bachelor's degree requirements, I am working on a thesis project that I feel has a lot of potential for public and commercial use. My problem is that while I will be able to write a good thesis on the topic, I feel that there is much to be gained by further development of the idea than what one year will allow. How can I devote the time and attention that this needs while providing a living for myself?

The project that I am working on is called Geoserver [SourceForge link]. The basic premise of the project is to provide a platform for sharing and aggregating geographic data that takes advantage of many small specialized data repositories, rather than a few large general centralized servers. The goal of the project is to adopt some of the software and platform features that made the web successful and apply them to geographic data.

While I could write an article on the platform itself, the pending question is if it is possible for me to continue the development in earnest while providing a living for myself?

The idea that I've been bouncing around in my head is this: By the end of the school year (April / May), I feel that I can have a 1.0 version of the platform available with the details comprising my thesis. The ideal situation would be one where I would be able to relocate for about a year or two to rural New Mexico and focus my attention on this project full time in order to advance development and develop applications using the platform that would encourage others to use it. The reason that I would prefer rural New Mexico at this point is four-fold:

  1. Cost of living in rural New Mexico is significantly cheaper, and in the event that something like a grant or loan funds the development of the software, costs like rent and food are minimized so that more funding can be used for other things like software tools, network connections, and testing hardware.
  2. I am already familiar with the area and would not have to deal with problems such as adapting to the area or adjusting to the local community.
  3. The relative isolation of the area provides a great place to concentrate completely on the project, while minimizing distractions that would take away from the work.
  4. I already know many people within organizations in the area (public and private) that could use the platform that I am developing in order to enhance some of the basic research and data collection / storage that is being conducted in the area. This serves them by providing new tools to enhance their research, and it serves me by providing a testbed for applications using my platform.

I have a very strong vision for the project, and that is to provide the basic components of the platform (servers, API's, documentation, sample clients) for free (the core software components are BSD-licensed), with the expectation that should a critical mass of of users adopting the platform becomes a reality, I would be able to realize the commercial potential of the platform by starting a company that provides value-added features and custom client software that utilizes the platform to meet customer needs. An analogy using the web: you can get free servers and clients and scripts, but there is still a large market for custom servers and custom web-based applications.

Since I feel that I wish to keep the core components open, I'm almost convinced that the traditional route of pursuing venture capital would be the wrong approach. First of all, with VC's, I feel that there would be too much short-term focus on making the platform commercial too early on. Secondly, I would like to implement these ideas as I feel is necessary, and not at the whim of some VC-appointed executive who is worried about an IPO. Also, the actual amount of money that I would need is far less than venture capitalists deal with. I can envision paying the bills and funding the project with a sum of money from $40,000 to $60,000 a year.

My next option is to approach a financial institution and request a loan. The problem with this approach is that it is very unlikely that they will not give me the time of day. First of all, I'm fresh out of school. I have no collateral, and no credit history that would prompt a bank to award me a $40K - $60K loan. I feel that this is a longshot at best.

My last option is to try and apply for some sort of grant. This may be my best option, as the work that I am doing definitely has a lot of potential for use by commercial organizations and government organizations like the Dept. of Interior and state departments of public lands and transportation. The only drawback to this approach is that the competition for grant money is very intense, and I probably lack the grant-writing skills to draft a grant that would compete with some of the more seasoned grant-writers in the commercial and academic realms.

Finally, I could bite the bullet and attend graduate school to further develop this project. The large reservation that I have with respect to graduate school is that at this point in my life, I do not feel that graduate school is the right thing for me personally at the moment, though it may be a possibility later on. A consequence of the graduate school approach is that I would be unable to develop this platform in an ideal environment. Finally, the typical time commitment that goes with graduate school is longer than what I am comfortable with. I think that a solid platform could be developed with a year of focused effort - I don't want to spend four to five years of less-focused effort while pursuing a PhD.

So, the questions that I present to the Kuro5hin audience are these: First, is what I'm describing financially feasible, and is it even possible for me at this point in my life to secure the funding for this project for a year? Second, if it is feasible, what means are the best ways to accomplish this? Where should my focus be? Third, is there anyone out there who has done something similar and has some insights to share regarding these types of things?

Or is this just impossible, and I should resign myself to working on this project part time?


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


What is the best way to do this?
o Venture capitalists 8%
o Loans 4%
o Grants 20%
o Graduate school 33%
o Work on it in evenings and on weekends 33%

Votes: 24
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Kuro5hin
o SourceForg e link
o Also by br284

Display: Sort:
Obtaining Funding For A Full-Time Personal Project | 23 comments (23 topical, editorial, 0 hidden)
Alternative: Talk with companies... (4.50 / 2) (#1)
by chipuni on Tue Nov 06, 2001 at 09:24:51 PM EST

You'll have a years' worth of effort toward this goal. You'll be able to demonstrate something to them. You'll have a lot more that you can show at a dog-and-pony show than ninety percent of folks with a grand idea.

In short, take it to a company or the government, proposing it as a product.

You'll need to concentrate on how this product will make money for them (if it's a company) -- perhaps through licensing of very good data. But that should be an easy sell. Talk with mapping companies, database companies, any company that might be interested in your product.

Good luck!
Perfection is not reached when nothing more can be added, but only when nothing more can be taken away.
Wisdom for short attention spans.

Heh (3.00 / 5) (#2)
by spacejack on Tue Nov 06, 2001 at 09:35:52 PM EST

Robert Roduigez funded his first movie, El Mariachi by filming it on the cheap in Mexico, and selling his body for drug testing.

The first video game I worked on got funded when I met this adventurous business who owned a phone-sex company. We got hammered drinking pints one night in a bar and he said, "hey you know, I've always wanted to get into the video game biz". And I said, "Oh yeah...?"

Talk to your thesis supervisor (4.00 / 1) (#3)
by BehTong on Tue Nov 06, 2001 at 10:28:14 PM EST

If your idea really has merit, I'm sure he'll be glad to fund you with some of his research grants. If he doesn't like it, I'm sure there are other profs around who would be interested. Go around, get to know some people, and see if they're interested. Some profs have connections with people in the industry, and might be able to give you good leads.

At any rate, these are the "warm doors", and I think it's much easier to find something this way than to go out and knock on cold doors trying to get attention.

Beh Tong Kah Beh Si!

Talk to others doing similar things... (none / 0) (#4)
by wierdo on Tue Nov 06, 2001 at 11:36:17 PM EST

The University of Arkansas' Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies is doing all sorts of GIS work, integrating a lot of GIS data about Arkansas into one rather large database. The particular project brought to mind would be GeoStor, however, it's fairly rough at this point, and they're trying to move in the opposite direction as you are, centralizing the data which is already available elsewhere. It would behoove you to speak to them, or others like them, to get an idea of where their funding is coming from. With good ideas, grant money comes easily, especially if you're giving things away for free, you just have to know where to look. ;) Call up non-profits, and ask for their advice, most of the folks I know who do work for non-profits are quite helpful people.


If you know people in the government... (none / 0) (#5)
by Sunir on Tue Nov 06, 2001 at 11:40:01 PM EST

Perhaps one of the people you know in the government could help you secure a government grant, or point you to a fund that his or her department has for research development.

Note that you'll likely have to use multiple sources to acquire enough funds. However, I wouldn't incur a large financial liability you couldn't pay off easily if you got a salary job if I were you. Considering you're asking kuro5hin, I'm betting you haven't fully completed your market research to prop up your twelve-point business plan. ;)

Alternatively, you could do like all true artists and work part time to fund yourself while you try this out. Something non-computer related would likely help you keep fresh and focused, not to mention avoid any entangling intellectual property problems.

Good luck though. It definitely sounds like something worth trying.

"Look! You're free! Go, and be free!" and everyone hated it for that. --r

Subsist (3.33 / 3) (#6)
by snowlion on Tue Nov 06, 2001 at 11:57:08 PM EST

Find a place that is cheaper than cheap- Find the cheapest, smallest, place that you can find.

Learn to buy rice at 25 cents/pound, and how to cook basic things. You can do that at the school you attend by talking with other students who have done this.

Plug in your computer, and have only the books you need handy.

Get a job at UPS that lets you work at minimum wage for 4.5 hours a day, every day. Make about $1,000/month.

Pay your apartment, which should be sub 600/month, for your food, which should be sub 100/month, and other things, which should be 50-75/month. That's at most 775/month. Save the remaining minimum 225/month. At the end of a year, you'll have min $2,700. You can do better than that by finding an even cheaper apartment, and figuring out how to shop and cook effectively. Just make sure you don't get distracted.

Forget the news, forget the world, forget everything.

You are at a particular time in your life. You are not hitched. You do not have children. You can do this, and no one will bother you.

If you cannot bring yourself to do this, that's okay. But, this is a way to do it.

Map Your Thoughts
Probably the best way to start out. (none / 0) (#10)
by libertine on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 01:26:17 AM EST

Since funding is a big unknown, then taking some time to minimize expenses can be valuable. It can also give some very direct and personal experience in terms of how much you will be willing to give up for funding in the future. This usually happens when you get really tired of rice and beans (of course, if you don't get tired of that, then hey, wammo, you are off to a great start).

You are probably right about the vulture capitalists. I did some research on the process of taking a software product to market under their wing, and if you are experienced enough at dealing with them, you might get away from the whole affair with somewhere between the upper six figures or a million. This isn't a lot, really, since you will have sold all rights to your software product in the process, and will have signed a 3 year non-compete with your previous company.

However, there are other means of funding a project. Tap all of your friends and family, and their friends and families. Research grants are great, and there are some private non-profit foundations that would pay someone to make an open-sourced GIS system. I think it is the Packard Foundation? that might fund research like that. There are also Universities that you can forge some departmental contacts with in the course of your work and research. If you can swing it, you might be able to get joint funding from several universities to field your own inter-campus project (in which case, you still might retain control of your software). Don't forget govt grants (though any military grants will likely mean a closed-source project, with them owning the source).

Another big thing is consulting. Theo DeRaadt of OpenBSD does this to fund his project, as well as most of the dev team for that distribution. Why not try writing people like TDR and RMS and others for advice on how to live and work as an independant?

Lastly, look at University jobs. They are probably going to be the most lenient in terms of IP issues regarding your project. Heck, if you work it right, you can work on your project AND get paid for it, while still retaining control of the code!

"Live for lust. Lust for life."
[ Parent ]

One more thing! (5.00 / 1) (#11)
by libertine on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 01:30:42 AM EST

Try dual or multiple licensing schemes. Meaning, make the core or server code open-source, but make the windows version of it binary-only-buy-the-license stuff. Same goes for the front end and other components of your choice. Seems to work for Sendmail and some other projects.

"Live for lust. Lust for life."
[ Parent ]
Some funding sources (5.00 / 3) (#7)
by sigwinch on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 12:34:33 AM EST

Consider SBIR/STTR contracts with the US gov't. (SBIR = Small Business Innovative Research, STTR = Small business Technology Transfer, if I'm remembering right.) Look through the program listings to find requests for proposals that are aligned with what you want to do. There are a variety of solicitations, and you can probably find a GIS solicitation that is vaguely aligned with what you want to do. FedGov has a lot of far-flung facilities and environmental disasters -- they do lots of GIS.

There are some drawbacks to SBIR/STTR, though. 1) Wading through all the solicitions takes a lot of effort. I know, I've done it. And for something like GIS you really have to look at them all: the Dept. of Agriculture and the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization are both likely to have GISish solicitations. 2) Incorporating as a business might help your credibility. And to spend the whole $100k (if that's what they award), you might have to hire an actual employee. The employee might be a part-time CS grad student, but you still have to do all the income tax and accounting crapola. 3) Contract negotiations, billing, monthly reports, final report, blah blah blah. Annoying and time-consuming. And if you screw up, the federal auditors come and frown at you. (Hint: keep thorough records of all billable hours and materials charged to the contract.) 4) You have to learn propsalese, the specialize persuasive language that makes people throw wads of money at you. 5) You also have to learn how to "handle" (that's the only word that describes it) the people who review and grant proposals. They don't necessarily have the best technical knowledge or insight, but they have money and they're dead set on spending it. If you're careful, you can use your initial contract to get your foot in the door for future contracts. If they reject it, ask why and try resubmitting next cycle, tailoring it to what they think they want. (In many ways it's like the Kuro5hin submission queue. ;-)

Incidentally, TSWG (Technical Support Working Group, part of the DoD) has a Broad Agency Announcement out on Combating Terrorism that might have opportunities for distributed GIS.

Also look for state and local grants. Oklahoma has Okla. Center for the Advancement of Science and Technology (OCAST), who provides matching funds for R&D work. (I.e., get $35k from an SBIR, and they might give you $35k.) Other states have similar programs. If you want to live in New Mexico, you might see if any of Sandia National Labs' GIS work is relevant to you.

May the force be with you.

I don't want the world, I just want your half.

Check one thing. (4.33 / 3) (#8)
by antizeus on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 01:01:43 AM EST

Make sure you didn't sign a piece of paper that assigns to the school all rights to your research. This may not be common in undergraduate studies, but better safe than sorry.
IP can be a real clincher... (5.00 / 1) (#9)
by libertine on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 01:08:59 AM EST

Best make sure it doesn't bite you in the ass after your work is completed and ready to take to market! If your work is assigned to your university by virtue of the research being part of your dissertation, you might have to drop the project now. This is assuming that the U won't release your IP rights to you if they are at issue.

Please do yourself a favor and find a contract/IP attorney to check out these facts for you.

"Live for lust. Lust for life."
[ Parent ]

Didn't sign anything (4.00 / 1) (#13)
by br284 on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 07:46:58 AM EST

This is another reason that why I went with an open source license. Previously, I had worked with a faculty member on a next-generation peer-to-peer system and he had released all of his code under the GPL. This seemed to allow him some control of the code, while avoiding potential hassles with the University's IP department.

Now, while I did sign such a paper a couple of years ago when I worked for a natl. lab (the agreement has long since expired), the University has not had undergraduates sign any sort of document with respect to research. I guess they really don't think that as undergraduates, we're going to produce anything of value that would justify the paperwork.


[ Parent ]
Didn't sign anything? (4.00 / 1) (#18)
by sigwinch on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 04:52:53 PM EST

At some point you undoubtedly signed something that said you would follow the University handbook and/or unspecified regulations incorporated by reference (and probably subject to change at any time without notice). Even if you didn't sign anything, the fact that the University publishes the handbook and you have a pattern of obeying it can create a binding contract. If it was me, I'd read all the relevant documentation very closely. If you found out now you can ask the Uni IP lawyers for an exemption and probably get it, but if you wait until later pretty much the only option will be signing over the license.

I don't want the world, I just want your half.
[ Parent ]

I'm in the clear. (4.00 / 1) (#23)
by br284 on Wed Nov 14, 2001 at 12:16:05 PM EST

I just checked with the person who drafted the University's IP policy with respect to software, and there are no IP entanglements.


[ Parent ]
In my experience (4.00 / 2) (#12)
by Neuromancer on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 02:55:38 AM EST

1) Probably you will not find personal funding for something pitched as a research project without university backing, even if you are a PhD, however, with good university backing, if you get into the right program, you can do research on bean burritos until you die, and have the dissertation be "Why do I like bean burritos so much," if you pitch it right.

2) You will never keep any of your research unless you're really smart about it before hand, but if you get some really cool faculty member to help you out before hand, they'll make sure you get your fair share of the glory and the money.

Oh well, you just have to be able to find someone in

I know a little something about geodata too (5.00 / 1) (#14)
by Inden on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 10:38:46 AM EST

I have also handled geographic digital datasets to a certain extent. I used to work for the US National Ocean Service handling them.

I'm curious if you have done the research of knowing how your project coincides or conflicts with existing efforts to standardize data formats and improve overall general access. There is a large federal initiative in this area (FGDC - Federal Geographic Data Committee I think) which you can easily find out a lot about on the internet and by calling the relevant GIS people in government. They will talk to you about data.

Is your goal is to satisfy your creative power by implementing a creative vision expressed in software or is it to get rich and well known or all of the above? How would you rank the three different possible rewards by order of priority: fame, wealth, creative satsifaction. Usually there are tradeoffs between the three. How you choose to pursue this vision depends on your ranking of these three criteria - and more that I don't know.

Libertarianism is Anarchism for the Rich
Thus far... (none / 0) (#15)
by br284 on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 12:09:07 PM EST

... I've been focusing on trying to standardize the format of the geodata using the OpenGIS consortium's GML XML ideas as a basis of the format of the data being transmitted. As far as request / response protocols, I'm writing my own XML-based request protocol rather than try and use and kludge HTTP to do my bidding.

I was not aware of the federal initiative in this area, but after looking at some of the other initiatives out there, I felt that there was little cooperation and each approach tended to solve a more limited set of problems than the more general problem that I'm tackling. I'll have to look again now that you've given me some additional pointers.

As far as my motivation for doing this project, I would rank them as follows: 1. Creative satisfaction. 2. Wealth. 3. Fame. The main reason that I am so pumped about this project is that I see a huge area that can be helped by a platform such as mine, and the project is diverse enough and interesting enough to provide lots of interesting and rewarding (intellectually and creatively) things to do. Finally, I do think that it would be nice if I were to eventually provide myself a modest living working with this type of technology. (Might as well be excited about work...)


[ Parent ]
HTTP can be useful (none / 0) (#19)
by sigwinch on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 04:58:53 PM EST

As far as request / response protocols, I'm writing my own XML-based request protocol rather than try and use and kludge HTTP to do my bidding.
On the other hand, HTTP on port 80 goes straight through most firewalls. If you use a custom protocol on a custom port, you will find corporate firewalls and NAT/PAT routers that can't handle it.

I don't want the world, I just want your half.
[ Parent ]

Talk to Geo-related companies... (4.00 / 1) (#16)
by aturner on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 03:41:56 PM EST

Why not talk to some of the Geo-related companies? Companies like Vicinity or Mapblast (now owned by AOL) have a vested interest in developing new technologies in that area and may find it compelling to provide you a stipend to continue your project.

- Aaron

They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety. -- Benjamin Franklin

Some thoughts ... (4.00 / 1) (#17)
by spcmanspiff on Wed Nov 07, 2001 at 04:13:28 PM EST

I'm doing a decent amount of GIS work at the moment myself....

You should check out opengis.org if you haven't already -- it would be ideal for client developers (like myself) if your server could be queried via ODBC with their spacial database standards... postGIS follows them; I don't know what else does.

Along those same lines, I'm using a lot of ESRI products, which are fairly dominant. It'd be really, really cool if you could reverse-engineer the ArcSDE wire protocol and impersonate an ArcSDE server for Arc* clients.

Side note: As a personal project, I'm considering writing an opengl-accelerated GIS display/data-entry/analysis library a la ArcView, so I'll probably be following your work...

And finally, as far as funding your personal work goes: I'm working as an independent contractor at the moment. Pay is good enough to support me well beyond the contract, which ends in january...

while (!burnout) {
if(savings > threshold) {
} else {

... good luck!

Grants, etc. (none / 0) (#20)
by eann on Thu Nov 08, 2001 at 12:29:16 PM EST

Often, colleges (especially those with research-oriented graduate programs) will have staff members whose job is to help write grants. Sometimes these people are hard to locate, as they usually get bizarre-sounding titles. "Development office" is a phrase I've seen at several institutions. Well, it's more common than "Guy Who Helps Us Beg for Money", anyway.

If your school doesn't have one, maybe you should look for a graduate school that does. You certainly wouldn't be the first person to have a project in mind before starting on a Master's or Ph.D., and you could potentially combine a smaller grant with a TA or RA position to meet your expenses. Probably means being somewhere other than rural New Mexico, though.

Finally, I'm going to reiterate other posts' comments on checking your school's intellectual property rules. It's not uncommon at all for all work done at a college to belong to that college's trustees/regents/whatever-they-call-the-governing-body. Your thesis advisor should be able to help you sort through this, or at least point you to someone on campus who can.

Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided men. —MLK

$email =~ s/0/o/; # The K5 cabal is out to get you.

Problems with private bureaucracies (none / 0) (#21)
by ragnarok on Sun Nov 11, 2001 at 05:40:06 AM EST

Whatever you do, don't expect a private firm to be able to understand. I learnt this in 1997-98 when I had an idea for a Linux-hosted TCAS plus Flight Management System.

It was brilliant, at least to me, involved the re-use of GNATS as the Avoidance Manager, FSP+finger+fping as the information redistributor, GPS for positioning, and a suitable mathematics library for calculating the vectors of approaching aircraft, and not forgetting BSD's OSI protocol stack. (The Aeronautical Telecommunications Network is OSI, believe it or not!) Tied together by named pipes of extremely short lifespans, and - somehow - multithreaded, at the very thought of which I bled, sweated and wept. Of course, it also required the use of satellite networking to contact the approaching aircraft, but I'd read about the very short range of the then standard TCASes, their place as software add-ons to radar, and the problems they were causing with increasingly crowded skies, and thought, bugger that!!!

In my wisdom I went to Trimble, which has a branch in Christchurch, New Zealand, and asked for information about their GPS APIs. I was told they would get back to me. I'm still waiting!

In short, the pain of applying for the grant may be no small pain, but the pain of trying venture capital - well, you're absolutely right about that. Ditto financial institutions - do you really want to be institutionalised?

Try the grant system first. Then go for the part time, just to stay moving. And if you still can't get anywhere, then maybe it's worth going through the Ph.D. grindmill.

"And it came to healed until all the gift and pow, I, the Lord, to divide; wherefore behold, all yea, I was left alone....", Joseph Smith's evil twin sister's prophecies
The government is there to pay you (4.00 / 2) (#22)
by KWillets on Tue Nov 13, 2001 at 02:56:47 AM EST

I finally got around to reading this story, and I was appalled to find that no one had mentioned the obvious tack of living off of the government. Many grad students find that they qualify for food stamps, welfare, etc. I recall reading years ago that a fair number of grad students at Princeton were on the dole.

Move to San Francisco. You can do damned near anything here and get tax money for it (I sound cranky, but well, I don't say that out of principle, but out of hard-earned experience.)

Obtaining Funding For A Full-Time Personal Project | 23 comments (23 topical, 0 editorial, 0 hidden)
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