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Mike Haughton, CEO and founder of Kernls, an online platform that helps people raise funds for research.Kellyann Petry/The Globe and Mail

Mike Haughton grew up an only child and shared a close relationship with his parents. When he was 22, he lost his father to pancreatic cancer. Thirteen years later, his mother died of gallbladder cancer. Mr. Haughton wanted to find a way to support research into the cancers that took his parents’ lives, but it proved difficult to find specific projects through traditional fundraising tools.

“I was just surprised at the lack of options. [I had no option] other than essentially picking up the phone and calling different development offices and trying to figure it out the old-fashioned way,” he said.

In December, 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, Mr. Haughton, now 38, founded Kernls – an online platform that helps people raise funds for research.

While Kernls is based in New York, where Mr. Haughton lives, he is now bringing this platform to his hometown of Toronto. On Wednesday, Kernls will announce a partnership with the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, the fundraising arm of the University Health Network’s Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. Like many charities, the foundation has seen its fundraising drop throughout the pandemic as galas, bike rides and other events were cancelled.

Kernls has already teamed with some of the top research facilities in the United States such as Albert Einstein College of Medicine, ATRI/University of Southern California and Burke Neurological Institute at Cornell University.

Mr. Haughton describes Kernls as a “giving platform.” Each person who signs up to help raise funds through Kernls is known as a “champion.” The champion expresses interest in an area and the team at Kernls works to find a research project that looks into the specific cause they feel motivated about. Once a champion is matched with a project, they partner with the institution to raise funds. A champion is both a donor and a facilitator. They also reach out to their network of friends and family to support their chosen cause. Currently, Kernls has a backlog of 60 potential champions waiting to be matched with research projects.

While his father was unwell, Mr. Haughton spent two summers working at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre. He moved to New York in 2006, after graduating from McGill University, and had a successful career as the founding member of an investment firm led by Steve Eisman, who was among those profiled in the best-selling book The Big Short. With Kernls partnering with the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation, it’s something of a homecoming for Mr. Haughton.

The platform is helping the centre with cancer research such as a study on the potential of slowing tumour growth in pancreatic cancer by cutting off cell communications. The work is led by Dr. Armand Keating of the Cell Therapy Translational Research Laboratory at University Health Network.

Kernls has already helped the project raise more than half of its goal amount of US$60,000. So far, 92 people have donated to the Keating project with an average of US$350 a donation. Donors get tax receipts through the Princess Margaret Cancer Foundation. “Our aim is to make online giving as satisfying as in-person giving,” Mr. Haughton said.

Before the pandemic, UHN depended on events to raise funds. “Events are a crucial part of peer-to-peer fundraising. It’s individuals who are going to ride the bike in the ‘Ride to Conquer Cancer’. They go out and raise money with their friends and their family. And Princess Margaret has always had a very strong event-based fundraising,” said Dr. Brad Wouters, executive vice-president for science and research at UHN.

Meaghan Stovel McKnight, the foundation’s chief operating officer, said the partnership would continue to be of value even after events resume. Kernls has brought in a whole new crop of donors.

“We have a new demographic of donors, both in age and geography. And those are donors that now can stay with us. And we can inspire their support over the long term,” Ms. McKnight said.

A large chunk of Kernls’ supporters are millennials and members of Generation X. Mr. Haughton said donors in his age group are likely to be motivated if they find a cause they believe in.

It was the ability of Kernls to find a specific cause for him that attracted 38-year-old San Francisco entrepreneur Sandy Gibson to the platform. “I chose to be a champion for a particular project, which was optimizing CAR-T cell activity to treat Non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma and leukemia. And that’s important for me, because my mom was involved in some of the early non-Hodgkins lymphoma research,” he said.

Researchers can also use the platform to inform potential donors about what their research is about, what their goals are and how they plan to achieve them. “It’s important for me to know upfront what the credibility of that research group is, to know that they’re trying to solve a problem. I want to feel involved, because there’s a certain element of pride in knowing that you helped,” Mr. Gibson added.

He said Kernls saves him the effort of personally vetting an institution.

Kernls depends on tips from champions and donors for its revenue stream. The platform recommends donors add a 10-per-cent tip to their donation to help them. The tip percentage can also be customized. Mr. Haughton says he has no reason to worry about whether a donation-based revenue model is risky.

Indeed, Mr. Haughton says the base of champions at Kernls is made up of people who are already predisposed to philanthropy. Mr. Gibson, for example, plans to add the recommended 10-per-cent tip when he makes his big donation. “Kernls is a business, but it’s a business that performs a very important service. People like to support a business that’s doing something good in the world,” he said.

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