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ZappyLab Creates Social Apps for Biologists

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a way to save money. Early adopters of the ZappyLab Bench Tools mobile suite come from academic centers, pharmaceutical companies and biotech firms, and 10,000 people have downloaded the protocol app, he says. To avoid damage to personal mobile phones, labs could buy a dedicated iPad mini for a third of the price of a conventional benchtop counter, he says.

ZappyLab is also adapting its bench tools for eventual use with Google Glass eyewear and voice-activated controls, so scientists won’t have to touch the controls of a mobile device with gloved hands that may have picked up contaminants.

The startup has a few competitors: a group of mobile apps is being offered by lab equipment supplier Life Technologies of Carlsbad, CA, which was acquired by Thermo Fisher Scientific last year. Shazino of Villeurbanne, France, offers a lab counter and timer for mobile devices, along with a library feature called PaperShip. But Teytelman says it would actually be better for ZappyLab to have more competitors and a more robust market, because biologists don’t expect to find research apps on platforms such as iTunes—so they don’t look for them.

Expanding the user base for ZappyLab is more labor-intensive than Teytelman and Stoliartchouk ever expected. Before they could get a critical mass of biologists to share their protocols and their modifications of those methods, ZappyLab had to follow the route of many social media companies that have created online communities. ZappyLab has been expanding its roster of free offerings to draw biologists in.

The ZappyLab apps include PubChase, which allows researchers to set up a cloud-based library of useful scientific articles and also to see what papers are on the PubChase shelves of their lab mates and professors. Like Netflix, the PubChase service recommends new research papers based on the user’s past choices. PubChase is on Android and iOs, as well as online at www.pubchase.com.

The PubChase page also hosts a “Lounge” where young researchers can seek career advice. They can also share blog entries called Essays by published students and scientists. The essays tell “the story behind the paper” they’ve written, Teytelman says—including the setbacks as well as the triumphs.

“A lot of the time, these stories get more readers than the papers themselves,” Teytelman says.

Teytelman remained at MIT for ZappyLab’s first two years, but in early February he left his post-doc position and moved to Berkeley to throw himself into marketing the business full-time.

Teytelman is doing this more like Gregor Mendel than like Mark Zuckerburg, and he fully appreciates the irony. While Twitter helped the company reach its Kickstarter goal, Teytelman says his most effective tactics are traveling and speaking in person to small groups—journal clubs, informal seminars, and current users of ZappyLab. The Kickstarter money will now be used to build the sharing capability of the startup’s app for protocol checklists. Teytelman and Stoliartchouk are the company’s two full-time employees, but the company has a development team of part-time computer students in Russia, along with other consultants.

One potential hitch for ZappyLab users is the possibility that they’ll get “scooped” by competing scientists if they reveal some of their lab findings, or even their reading lists on PubChase. Teytelman says users have the option to keep their libraries private, and they can hold back details of their research methods until after they have published a paper.

When they do share, ZappyLab will give them prominent credit for helping make the entire research enterprise more efficient and accurate, Teytelman says. He suspects that ZappyLab may help address one of the big current problems in science: experimental results in one lab often can’t be reproduced in other labs.

This could be due to a lack of precise details in published protocols, he says. For example, if a procedure calls for agitating a test tube to mix the ingredients, does that mean to gently turn it upside down once, or to shake it vigorously?

“This is knowledge that just basically sits on people’s desks,” Teytelman says. “Clearly, this is a resource that scientists really need.”

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