[Updated 6/9/17 12:39 p.m. See below.] A 2015 study in the journal PLOS Biology estimated that $28 billion is spent annually in the U.S. on preclinical research that is not reproducible.
One reason for what some researchers have called a “crisis” in reproducibility is that in certain types of laboratories, some scientists still track their day-to-day research activities in paper notebooks—or, worse yet, in their heads. That’s according to Scott Fulton, CEO of Madison, WI-based Cellara. The startup is developing software designed for researchers in stem cell labs that it says can improve reproducibility of experiments and collaboration among groups around the world.
Formed in 2012, Cellara has been working with several organizations in Wisconsin to develop and test its digital tools. The company plans to formally launch its CultureTrax software to the market later this month in Boston at the annual meeting of the International Society for Stem Cell Research.
Stem cells are undifferentiated cells that can be programmed to turn into specific cell types. Fulton says there are about 25,000 stem cell culture labs worldwide. Some of them have computerized systems for tracking cell cultures, he says, but many still use paper.
“We interviewed more than 200 stem cell scientists over the last several years,” he says. “We found that [many] plan, track, and document all of their cell culture work using paper lab notebooks, just like Louis Pasteur did.”
The name CultureTrax comes from “culture track,” which according to company materials refers to a combination of a cell line, culture dish, and protocol—the predefined steps that make up a scientific experiment. Researchers who are growing stem cells can use Cellara’s software to document the contents of culture dishes—and their individual compartments—as well as what actions they’ve taken within a given protocol. Users can also record observations and upload images to monitor cell size and shape. [This paragraph has been updated to clarify that researchers can use Cellara’s software to monitor a cell’s size and shape, or morphology.]
Many researchers who work with stem cells do so while standing or sitting in front of biosafety cabinets. Cellara provides customers with an iPad mount that can be attached to cabinets, so that users can more easily switch between logging information and hands-on work with the cells. The startup’s Web-based software is designed to run on both mobile devices and computers. Fulton says that stem cell scientists do the bulk of their documentation while sitting at their desks.
Multiple labs at both the Medical College of Wisconsin, which is located in the Milwaukee area, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are currently using CultureTrax. Another recently signed customer is King’s College London, which has a stem cell and regenerative medicine department.
Alex Vodenlich, vice president of business development at Cellara, says the functions and ease of use of his company’s software also makes it a useful tool for training aspiring stem cell technicians.
Cellara has formed a partnership with Madison College—a nearby school that offers a variety of associate degree programs and certificates, including one in stem cell technologies—to train students using a version of the startup’s software. The program is supported in part by a $661,000 grant the National Science Foundation awarded the school in 2015.
“That’s a whole other adjacent market—trying to educate the next generation of stem cell scientists,” Vodenlich says.
Cellara has worked with Acumium, another software company based in Madison, to write the code for CultureTrax. Dan Costello, founder and CEO of Acumium, is one of Cellara’s larger investors, Fulton says.
The startup has raised about $2 million in debt and equity funding to date, Fulton says. He says Cellara has spent about $1.5 million building CultureTrax, and is “about 90 percent through the development phase.”
Cellara, which currently has six employees, is trying to raise a Series A funding round. Fulton says he hopes to close the round by the end of the summer. Vodenlich says the target amount is in the range of $1 million to $2 million, though that is not set in stone.
Organizations that purchase Cellara’s software will likely be charged on a per-user, per-year basis, Vodenlich says. He adds that with most scientific businesses that operate under a software-as-a-service business model, that usually comes out to a few hundred dollars per user annually. Still, Vodenlich says his company is still “testing the numbers” when it comes to pricing.
Fulton says that CultureTrax loosely fits the description of a laboratory information management system (LIMS). Plenty of large lab supplies companies, such as Waltham, MA-based Thermo Fisher Scientific (NYSE: TMO), sell LIMS software. And some companies provide software geared specifically toward stem cell labs, such as Steiner and Key Solutions.
Cellara currently has six customers, and its goal is for CultureTrax to be installed in 25 labs by the end of the year, Vodenlich says.
Fulton says that being headquartered in a city with a history of stem cell discoveries has been a major help.
“It’s nice being in Madison because there are a lot of people here who work in the stem cell field,” he says. “It would be really hard to do this company anywhere else.”