Start-ups in the Lab
An old friend once told me, write about what you know rather than what you aspire to be. Working since late September in a University of Oxford lab 9 to 6pm gives me some confidence in my knowledge of what everyday life is like for the science researcher.
Over the past few months, what I’ve noticed most about the difference between the start-up and academic worlds is the pace of change. Although there have been small breakthroughs in recent years and growing interest in ‘lab start-ups’, the world of research cannot deny it has been too slow in adopting new mentalities and technologies. Laden with institutional bureaucracy and hampered with protracted funding and publishing systems, the juggernaut of academic research is slow to change direction.
However, more and more independent research organisations and DIY labs have been cropping up around the world and tech start-ups specialising in building the tools that help researchers go about their lives.
For example, Science Exchange, dubbed by the Economist as the “Uber for experiments”, addresses the under-usage of expensive research equipment by creating a marketplace where laboratories can rent out machines to conduct experiments for others.
Backed by some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley including the infamous Y Combinator, it has created a new model for the sharing economy: labs auction off offerings to researchers. It already works with over 1,000 labs!
One common argument that I get when proposing crazy start-up ideas to my lab colleagues is Patent or Intellectual Property infringement. Well, Science Exchange combats that by making labs sign a legal commitment not to publish or share any data they obtain. In fact, having such work done by a 3rd party can have the advantage that it is harder for researchers to cherry-pick results and artificially shape the process.
Science Exchange, isn’t the only one: Le Web last year brought together 15 of the world’s most exciting science & research start-ups which also included Protocols.io, a GitHub for protocols. A common problem I’ve had in the lab is struggling to find the correct synthesis procedures. There’s so much irrelevant data out there- the most common portal is Elsevier-owned Reaxys which is far from perfect. Protocols.io crowdsources its repository of science methods and encourages scientists to post improvements to existing methods rather than wait for months and years before publishing it as an after-thought on a paper.
I must also confess that my lab book is in a pretty bad state, sometimes even I find it quite hard to read. I think I’ve found the perfect solution with Lab Folder, which is a digital lab book that helps you organise your research, record all your data on your computer or directly on your phone or tablet. You can even add handwritten annotations on the mobile app. Their tagline is to help you spend more time doing experiments and less time recording.
When I look around the lab, there are so many problems or as I see them, opportunities that can be solved through technology. Only time will tell whether academics will latch onto this new world or shy away from change.