Elizabeth Iorns is the daughter of successful computer industry entrepreneurs, but as a New Zealand schoolgirl she swerved from the path taken by her mom and dad. Building on an early fascination with biology, she rocketed through her college years winning awards and scholarships, took a PhD at a prestigious cancer research center in London, and launched a traditional academic career in life sciences.
But her entrepreneurial genes soon kicked in. As a new scientist at the University of Miami, she saw an unmet need in the practice of medical research. Iorns envisioned a way to fill the need while brainstorming with her husband, a computer industry executive.
And in the swift way things sometimes happen in the tech world, Iorns became the co-founder and CEO of a Web startup that raised more than $1.6 million from early-stage investors in 2011.
Her Palo Alto company, Science Exchange, is now trying to make things happen more quickly for biomedical scientists who are toiling to reveal the mechanisms of disease and produce better treatments. The online marketplace helps those researchers outsource some of their experiments to other institutions that have the pricey equipment or expertise their own universities lack.
Investigators can shop on the Science Exchange for DNA sequencing facilities, mass spectrometry labs, electron microscopes, and about a thousand other resources at 400 academic centers and other institutions in the United States.
Iorns expects her growing startup to accelerate progress in disease discovery. “It’s going to make research much, much more efficient,’’ she says.
The idea emerged from Iorn’s culture shock when she finished her PhD in London and started her US post-doctoral studies in 2008. She was accustomed to the speed and efficiency that were built-in features at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, where scientists collaborated within a highly integrated unit that included specialists in many fields, from medicinal chemistry to human pathology. Various elements of a research project could be turned over to experts who knew the techniques best, she says.
In London, Iorns saw important lab discoveries quickly progress to late-stage clinical trials, a pace she now recognizes as unusual. Her lab mentor was Alan Ashworth, co-discoverer of two mutant genes that raise the risk of cancer, and a pioneer in the use of compounds called PARP inhibitors as cancer treatments.
In the United States, Iorns discovered roadblocks to the collaboration she had found so productive in Ashworth’s lab.
“There’s actually a real emphasis on doing it yourself,’’ Iorns says.
Scientists who do recruit outside collaborators to carry out some of their work often end up fighting over credit for their findings, Iorns says.
Leaders of US labs often maintain that it’s cheaper to perform new techniques in-house, Iorns says. But that route involves the cost of new equipment, and the time spent to master its use, she says.
Major US universities have solved some of those problems by setting up “core facilities’’ with expensive equipment and specialists whose primary role is to help their colleagues with scientific projects. Often, the specialized centers also perform experiments for scientists from other research institutions, for a fee. But Iorns says she saw no easy way for researchers to find all the services they needed.
It was the kind of marketplace problem routinely tackled by Web entrepreneurs for professionals in many different fields, Iorns learned from her husband Dan Knox, then an executive at the Miami-based company DailyMe, a personalized news website. Iorns and Knox teamed up with … Next Page »