Science Searches Simplified
Researcher and entrepreneur explains how she hopes to help others take a great scientific idea to reality
At a Glance
- As biomedical research becomes more specialized, no single laboratory can perform all of the necessary tests – but the search for collaborators presents problems of its own
- Feeling those same frustrations led scientist Elizabeth Iorns to create Science Exchange, an online outsourcing marketplace for researchers seeking problem-free collaborations
- Entrepreneurship isn’t easy, but research skills are transferable and the number of scientists starting businesses is increasing
- For those looking to get into business, the key is to follow your passions – even when it seems risky
The world of biomedical research is filled with technological possibilities – and the universe of options is constantly expanding. With so many different ways of tackling once-impossible problems, how can researchers keep up? It’s clear that no one person can learn all of the techniques needed to bring a project from idea to completion, but collaboration and outsourcing are difficult; it’s hard to know who’s best-placed to perform a particular experiment, or which service providers are most reliable. When Elizabeth Iorns began her academic career, she faced those same difficulties in her own experiments. That’s what led her to establish Science Exchange, an online marketplace where researchers can locate, evaluate and order from service providers – no muss, no fuss. Here, she speaks candidly about the challenges that entrepreneurial researchers face today, and how she hopes that her online platform might provide the step-up that they need to take ideas to reality.
How has research changed since you began your career?
I think it’s become a lot more specialized. As a result, the rate at which scientists are having to learn new skills or purchase new instrumentation has accelerated, and this has created the need for a team-based approach where scientists collaborate more than ever to make discoveries happen. Next generation sequencing is a good example; most scientists aren’t trained in that technology, but a lot of them would like to access it. More and more, to conduct their experiments, they’re turning to commercial service providers or core facilities with the latest technologies.
A lot of this is being driven by recent developments in digital and molecular technologies – in next generation sequencing, of course, but also in other fields like microscopy. As new instrumentation and techniques arise, scientists have to increase the depth of their understanding, but that can cost them in terms of breadth. I feel that’s a large part of the reason so many researchers are looking for quicker, easier ways of accessing new technologies.
Historically, researchers have focused on learning and doing as much as possible themselves. Nowadays, though, I think we reach a tipping point where we realize that, to be competitive and make big discoveries, we need access to more techniques than we can learn by ourselves. In my opinion, the “modern scientist” has evolved beyond trying to stand completely alone and, instead, focuses on efficiently identifying collaborators who can take on different parts of a project.
What are the major challenges facing researchers today?
Incentives and ownership. Intellectual property and confidentiality are big issues that researchers have to address when they’re working with external collaborators. At the moment, those kinds of arrangements are often made on an ad hoc basis with friends or colleagues, but that can raise issues when expectations and incentives aren’t clearly defined. It comes down to the “holy grail” of first authorship. The current system of research incentives prizes that above all else, so in a collaboration, the person who isn’t going to be first author on the paper won’t prioritize the work as highly as their own – and that leads to conflict. It may be a flawed system, but unfortunately, that’s how things work at the moment. That’s why I think we need to move toward professionalizing collaboration through the use of contract research facilities.
In some ways, it’s a lot easier in industry because ownership is very clearly defined and there are a lot of control mechanisms in place. Pharma researchers know that they can’t just ask someone to collaborate on a project; there always has to be a contract when research is externalized. The protocols have to be clear-cut because industry is very much focused on the end goal – “how do we get the drug to market as quickly as possible?” Conflicts over property and priorities slow the process down, and that’s not acceptable.
In academia, though, there’s still a strong focus on individual contributions and “personal branding.” I hope that will change soon, because it doesn’t reflect the reality of modern science – that everything is based on teamwork. If you look at any Nature or Science paper now, it’s likely to have more than 10 authors. There’s got to be a way to credit people who aren’t necessarily first authors, but who have contributed to a lot of different research projects. Those researchers are the backbone of progress, and we need to ensure that they also have good career opportunities.
Science Exchange’s Reproducibility Initiative and Elizabeth Iorns’ ambitions to produce the largest public dataset of reproduced work in the field of biomedical science
The Reproducibility Initiative aims to provide an efficient way to run replication studies. Frequently, pharmaceutical companies and venture capitalists would bring us published studies and ask us to re-run the results. Just as we began to wonder why they were doing that, two publications came out that indicated that only about 20 to 25 percent of studies could be reproduced. So we decided that, although we were happy to provide private validations as a service, we also wanted the ability to publish those results so that the information was freely available. After all, what happens if a private validation fails – but it’s never published, so no one benefits from it?
From that starting point, we reached out to more than 20,000 recently published authors to ask if they would be willing to have their studies reproduced. About 2,000 of them agreed, so we used that as the basis for a funding application – which taught us that, although funders were very interested in replication studies, they thought that the opt-in model would be biased toward reproducibility. So instead, they funded us to do the Reproducibility Project for Cancer, which was based on a selection of 50 high-impact cancer biology studies.
That project is a collaboration between Science Exchange and the Center for Open Science. It uses the Science Exchange network and the Center for Open Science framework to replicate the experiments from these 50 high-impact cancer biology studies. The goal is to produce the largest public dataset of reproduced work in the field of biomedical science. The project is about halfway through now, so we’re just starting to get all of the results back. We’ll publish them in batches as they come in, and at the end, we’ll run a meta-analysis of factors associated with reproducibility.
Since we began the project, we’ve had a lot of interest in validation studies from other groups. I’m optimistic that, as people see the results come out, they’re going to be more interested in funding replication studies in their own fields of interest. Most research funding is allocated to original work, but we’re hoping to provide a structured path to fund validation studies, because they’re vital to clinical translation. It’s problematic that industries currently run these studies independently, because they don’t publish the results, so the work is repeated and resources are wasted. That’s what we’re hoping to overcome with the Reproducibility Initiative.
What is Science Exchange?
It’s a marketplace for outsourced research services. We have a network of more than 3,000 service providers, including contract research organizations, government facilities, and academic laboratories. We’ve put in place fee-for-service agreements with all of our suppliers so that any researcher, whether industry or academic, can use our marketplace to order an experiment with any of those service providers under our pre-existing contracts. That provides two benefits: one, efficiency, because they don’t have to go through the contracting process with each individual supplier they need; and two, it aligns incentives. Ownership is clearly defined in advance, and the incentive is simple: payment for a body of work. But by consolidating spending and handling all of the logistics – supplier contracts, payment processing, compliance with regulations – we offer not just trustworthiness and ownership guidelines, but also efficiency.
At the moment, Science Exchange offers more than 5,000 different experimental services. The vast majority of our work is focused on biomedical research, so examples include safety pharmacology, xenograft models, efficacy testing, and access to new technologies like CRISPR/Cas9, single-cell sequencing and next generation sequencing. But we also have other experimental services, including chemistry, materials science and more. Even NASA has used Science Exchange to develop the blackest material that was ever measured!
Commitment to Conservation
Elizabeth Iorns describes why she feels the Genetic Diversity Project can really make a difference
The Genetic Diversity Project is a really cool undertaking that raises awareness of both endangered species and the unique ways people use technology for conservation. The Kākāpō 125 Project, for instance, leverages the Science Exchange network to sequence the genomes of every remaining kākāpō, a critically endangered species of New Zealand flightless parrot. Why? It lets the Kākāpō Recovery Team look for the most effective ways to match the birds in breeding programs – and it’s already showing significant success. This past year was their most successful yet in terms of chicks born. The number “125” used to indicate the number of known living kākāpō – but it’s probably not accurate anymore!
People keep finding newer and cooler ways of using genome sequencing. There are conservation initiatives out there like the Kākāpō 125 Project, and there are investigations into the vagaries of the human genome – like the Resilience Project, which looks for protective mutations against human genetic diseases. People used to hear “genome sequencing” and think “tumor biology,” but that’s no longer the case – and I think that’s fantastic.
What inspired you to create such a service?
Before I started Science Exchange, I was an assistant professor at a time when the research ecosystem was changing significantly. There was an increasing need for easy access to a broad range of technical service providers. When I moved to the University of Miami, I was trying to continue my work with microarray technology, which – while now very old-school – was cutting-edge at the time. I wasn’t in a position to set up collaborations, so it was really difficult to know where I could turn to get those experiments run.
Looking for commercial service providers outside our institution involved a lot of contracting, set-up paperwork, payment arrangements, and uncertainty, because I had no way of being sure they’d do a good job. That’s when my co-founder, Dan Knox, and I came up with the idea that you could solve a lot of those problems with an online marketplace that provided transactional histories and removed the issues with contracting and payment.
Of course, every scientist wants the ability to control every single detail of an experiment, and outsourcing prevents that. You have to have a lot of trust in your service providers. Unfortunately, many of them have high staff turnover rates, which can make it difficult to keep up with which ones are best at any given experimental service. We found that word of mouth tended to fall out of date very quickly. Our solution to that was the “supplier scorecard” – essentially a user review, so that people can see others’ experiences with service providers. After every contracted experiment, we ask the requester to fill out a scorecard. That’s given us a lot of insight into the real-time performance of our service providers.
In February 2011, we applied to the Silicon Valley accelerator program Y Combinator to get Science Exchange off the ground. During the three months of the program, we were able to build and launch the initial minimal viable product – and, surprisingly, generated a significant amount of growth. Researchers found out about Science Exchange and wanted to use it. That helped us raise additional funding to build our team, expand our supplier base to offer more services, and improve our marketplace website (www.scienceexchange.com). Now that Science Exchange has really taken off, we’re focusing on growth through digital marketing, word of mouth, and institutional deals.
Who uses Science Exchange, and how?
Most of our volume comes from large pharmaceutical companies and well-funded, early-stage biotech companies. These are organizations that have money, but need speed; they want to be quick to market, so they’re trying to drive their research forward as quickly as possible. For them, Science Exchange is an ideal solution, because they can access all of the service providers without any delays for contractual issues. They can even push their research in parallel through multiple providers to avoid reductions in speed.
Using Science Exchange is very straightforward. Requesters simply log in, search for a service, request quotes, and place their orders. The transactions are automatically covered by supplier agreements regarding intellectual property and confidentiality. If a user searches for an experiment and finds that there are no current providers, they’ll be brought to our sourcing service, which looks through a much larger database. They can then choose from the available options and we’ll add their preferred provider to the Science Exchange network.
For those wanting to become suppliers, applications are screened in under a week, and if the supplier passes, they’re “onboarded” into the Science Exchange network and trained to use the platform. Not everyone is accepted immediately, though. It’s a balancing act – we want to have all of the suppliers we need, but at the same time, if we add too many, they won’t each get enough work. We selectively add suppliers when our requesters have a real need for their services.
What’s day-to-day life like for a science entrepreneur?
It’s not that different to being a scientist. One of the things I like to emphasize is how many of the skills that you develop in science are applicable to entrepreneurship – obtaining funding, giving presentations, interpreting experimental results and deciding what to do next… You think of developing a company as a research project where you test out different theories about what’s going to help your company grow, and then you look at the results, see what did and didn’t work, and build from that.
Individual investigators in academia have a lot of freedom to make their own decisions about their research, look for funding opportunities, and drive projects forward. In many ways, I think business is pretty similar. Academia has certain frustrating areas of bureaucracy that you don’t have as an entrepreneur, because you get to decide how much bureaucracy there is! But business comes with its own challenges; you have to worry about stability, and you’re responsible for many more people’s careers and livelihoods as you make sure that the company is sufficiently funded to support its staff.
What’s your advice for other scientific entrepreneurs?
We’re seeing a rise in entrepreneurship. More and more scientists are trying to bring new technologies and services to the market, which is really exciting. I’ve also noticed significant strides in terms of people’s awareness of the opportunities, and that’s meant that a more diverse group of people are starting new companies – especially in Silicon Valley, where there have previously been fewer women leading businesses. I think that’s great, because that’s really going to drive innovation.
To launch a new business, I think it’s important to leverage infrastructure that already exists; you don’t want to spend time and resources reinventing the wheel. Science Exchange gained a lot by taking part in Y Combinator, and I would strongly advise other entrepreneurs to look for similar opportunities. Instead of thinking about problems that have already been solved, you want to focus on building your company. So if you can go somewhere where they can teach you the routine steps of setting up a business, you have more time to focus on the unique parts of your project.
In general, you should look for the things that passionately interest you. A lot of people thought I was crazy for leaving my job to start Science Exchange, but I really felt like I could make more of an impact with that than I could as an individual investigator. And within the first year, I knew I had made the right decision. Even if Science Exchange had failed, I still felt that my personal and professional growth were accelerated because I was doing something I was really passionate about, rather than just sticking to the safe path. People should look for the areas that most excite them, because even if that seems risky, the rewards will be worth it.
Elizabeth Iorns is co-founder and CEO of Science Exchange, Palo Alto, USA. She is also a part-time partner of Y Combinator (Mountain View, USA), and mentors at IndieBio (San Francisco, USA).