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Kiwis out to revolutionise research with online science marketplace – updated

Kiwis out to revolutionise research with online science marketplace – updated

Two Kiwis are behind what has been dubbed an 'eBay for science', a website that connects scientists to other institutions with the equipment and means to carry out experiments that their own universities do not have.

Elizabeth IornsScience Exchange, which launched last month, was founded by Elizabeth Iorns,  Dan Knox and Ryan Abbott in April. Knox and Iorns are a husband-and-wife team originally from New Zealand; he's an EMBA student at MIT Sloan with law and economics degrees from the University of Otago, she's a breast cancer researcher at the University of Miami.

The concept revolves around an online marketplace for science experiments, allowing scientists to outsource their research to 'providers' – other researchers and institutions that have the facilities and capacity to meet their needs. Essentially, it enables researchers to access technology not available at their own institutions or simply speed up the process, she says.

Iorns says Science Exchange has the potential to completely disrupt the way experiments are carried out.

"Imagine eBay, but for scientific knowledge. You post an experiment that you want to outsource, and scientific service providers submit bids to do the work. The goal is to make scientific research more efficient," she told Nature.

There are nearly 1,000 scientists signed up to the database, she says, and universities including Princeton, Duke, Stanford and Johns Hopkins are registered.

She says there has also been interest from overseas researchers. 

Knox says what scientists are trying to achieve is incredibly powerful.

"Science is funded either by charitable donations ... or it's public money which could be used to spend on a bunch of very important things like healthcare or education," he says.

"So when you see it being wasted that's frustrating because that money's very valuable."

Born in a bathroom

Iorns' own experiences highlighted a need for such a service. While working as a breast cancer biologist, she realised she needed an external provider in order to conduct some experiments outside her field.

"What followed was an entirely frustrating process, and when I found the provider it was difficult to pay them because they were outside my university's purchasing system. When I talked to other scientists, it became clear that this was a really big problem, but also one that could be solved with a marketplace."

She was recounting her difficulties with the system once again to Knox when the concept came to him.

"We came up with the idea literally in our bathroom one morning," he says. "I sort of jokingly said 'what you guys need is an oDesk for science'."

Knox says he and Iorns had been talking for a long time about opportunities to work together on something entrepreneurial. The couple moved to London in 2003, where he first caught the entrepreneurial bug. All the innovation in the digital space, however, seemed to be taking place in the US.

In 2007 Iorns accepted a research position in Florida, and Knox joined the digital media startup DailyMe. The company (which was recently acquired) had just raised a round of capital, which Knox says was "pretty unusual" in south Florida.

"Not many VCs are interested in travelling to board meetings. There isn't a lot of outside VC capital that goes into Florida."

His tenure as head of operations at DailyMe served him well once the pair made the decision to strike out. The team was complete after a friend recommended Ryan Abbott, cofounder of social media analytics platform Loudpixel, who came onboard as technical cofounder.

Hitting the accelerator

It just so happened that applications for Ycombinator, a startup accelerator programme in California, were open. After a brief interview – the mockups Abbott and Knox had slavishly worked to complete were never even brought out – Science Exchange was accepted, and the trio moved out to Palo Alto. In exchange for a 7 percent stake, the budding company received seed funding from Ycombinator.

"It may sound like you're giving up quite a lot, but you've got to ask 'Am I better off having 100 percent without their support or 93 percent with'?" Knox says.

In their case, he says, it was a no-brainer; the value of the company was dramatically increased by the brand association and the networks and relationships it opened up.

"It's hugely supportive for very very early stage entrepreneurs," he says.

"We've managed to close our seed round very quickly. People that we targeted as potential investors have almost without exception jumped on board."

According to Iorns, Science Exchange has raised US$320,000 so far and hopes to raise another $1 million.

It pays to be present

Knox says there's no substitute for actually being where the key players are, and he was surprised to learn just how much location matters.

"We went through a period of time when were trying to raise additional money," he says of his DailyMe days. "We pretty much got turned down by  every single West Coast investor even before we spoke to them."

San Francisco is unlike anywhere else in the world due to its entrepreneurial ecosystem, he says.

"It's a mindset that pervades almost everyone out here. The law firm that we work with is phenomenal – they primarily work with startups. Accountants and bookkeepers. Even our cleaning company – they work with other startups ... people who are too busy working on their startup to clean."

According to Knox, "every single coffee shop you go into, there's one guy pitching to another guy,  or people pumping out code".

"This whole place runs on startups and that's so exciting," he says.

"The other thing that's different is a real pay-it-forward mentality."

A smarter way to do science

According to Iorns, Science Exchange offers serious financial incentives for institutions – it allows them to maximise the use of their existing facilities, reducing the need to subsidise them.

As she told TechCrunch, major universities often have core labs that house extremely valuable equipment. Experiments are only carried out there by scientists dedicated solely to that lab, who deliver the results to the researcher who originally requested the experiment. And in some cases, those labs are only infrequently utilised. But arranging to use equipment hosted at other campuses is fraught with logistical problems, which Science Exchange aims to eliminate.

She says the goal was to make it easy for researchers to access core resources across institutions, dealing with billing, payments, quality assurance and dispute resolution.

"We take a small commission if we match a researcher with a provider and they use us to do the transaction – 5 percent for projects under $5,000, which is tiny in comparison with what researchers can save by examining prices from multiple providers. For projects costing more than $5,000, it is a lower commission and a sliding scale: we aren't going to charge $50,000 on a $1 million experiment."

While other directories of facilities do exist, they require scientists to contact providers themselves, she says.

She told Scientific American many breast cancer advocates were similarly frustrated at the lack of collaboration in scientific research.

"They believe, as do I, that there must be a better way to get scientists working together," she says.

"Outsourcing revolutionised the IT industry in the 1990s and 2000s and I believe outsourcing has the potential to revolutionise scientific research in the same way."