As a young MIT post-doctoral student, Lenny Teytelman marveled at the things that can be done in the lab these days, like sequencing all the DNA in a single cell.
“It’s mind-blowing,” Teytelman says. Yet despite all the parallel advances in the computer world, biological scientists don’t make use of digital devices when they log their data, he realized. They’re still using paper notebooks and pens.
“We’re recording everything by hand,” Teytelman says.
Teytelman couldn’t have known it at the time, but his interest in lab inefficiencies would soon sweep him along to found a startup called ZappyLab, now based in Berkeley, CA, which just completed a successful fundraising round on Kickstarter that netted $54,600. That money adds to the $450,000 the company has already raised from outside investors, and the $100,000 invested by its co-founders. ZappyLab is creating a suite of tools and collaborative platforms to help biologists improve their research and manage their careers.
Teytelman remembers the exact date when he took the first step toward his new vocation: Jan. 7, 2012. He was buying food at Trader Joe’s in Cambridge, MA, when he got a call from his tech-savvy friend Alexei Stoliartchouk, a fellow immigrant from Russia who is a veteran of CNET and Yahoo. Stoliartchouk asked him: What kind of apps do biologists need?
Still an MIT post-doc, Teytelman thought of all the frustrations and obstacles of lab work. He told Stoliartchouk they should make a mobile device app where researchers could list all the steps needed to perform commonly used experimental techniques, like making copies of DNA molecules. (Botch any of the steps, and your data will be worthless.) With that beginning, ZappyLab was born.
A few weeks later, Teytelman envisioned something even more useful than a basic checklist of steps that make up an experimental protocol. What if scientists could add notes and corrections to the protocols ZappyLab made available on mobile devices? Teytelman himself had discovered errors in published protocols—in one case, it took him a year and a half of troubleshooting to figure it out. His solution could have spared many other researchers from similar research delays, he felt. Yet there was no efficient way to get the word out. He could sink more time into writing a small paper on the modified method, but the paper would probably be buried under the deluge of other scientific articles.
“This is the same publication model that Gregor Mendel was using,” Teytelman says. (Mendel was the 19th-century monk who laid the groundwork for genetics by observing inherited traits in pea plants. His published work had little impact in his lifetime, and wasn’t “rediscovered” until 15 years after his death.)
The goal of the fledgling startup shifted from a simple checklist app that Teytelman and Stoliartchouk could quickly sell, to the creation of an interactive, crowdsourced platform. That meant that ZappyLab had to create a community.
“When you’re trying to pull this off, you need the crowd,” Teytelman says. “Without sharing, you’re no better than a published paper.”
Rather than trying to sell apps, Teytelman and Stoliartchouk now plan to build a revenue base through partnerships with sellers of laboratory supplies and reagents, who receive billions of dollars in orders from lab scientists. ZappyLab’s platform could eventually allow researchers to swipe the bar code on a reagent bottle with a mobile device and immediately access an order page.
ZappyLab started with small steps two years ago by offering some free tools. Along with a basic template for a protocol checklist (at http://www.protocols.io/), the company created a mobile app version of a common benchtop counting machine used for tasks such as logging the number of blood cells in a sample. These benchtop machines can cost upwards of $1,000 at laboratory supply companies. ZappyLab’s free Lab Counter app allows researchers to log and store similar data on cloud servers, and to share it.
Teytelman and Stoliartchouk expected these apps to go viral, but they quickly found that biologists are among the toughest audiences for the adoption of new tools. Researchers are very busy, and they’re little influenced by novelty or advertising, Teytelman says.
There are other good reasons why lab biologists are slower to deploy apps than IT folks whose work is mainly accomplished on screens, keyboards, and mobile devices. The biologist’s benchtop can be crowded with Bunsen burners, corrosive acids, radioactive solutions, and petri dishes full of germs. Wouldn’t that be a hazardous environment for a mobile phone? Investors and others have asked Teytelman that question.
Teytelman sees the use of mobile lab tools as inevitable—as a convenience as well as 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.”