When you need an experiment done but do not have the time or resources to do it in your lab, where can you turn? Such dilemmas are becoming increasingly common for overburdened principle investigators, according to Elizabeth Iorns, a former cancer researcher at the University of Miami. "It's hard to find providers, time consuming to communicate with them, hard to evaluate them, and hard to pay them," she says.
To alleviate these issues, Iorns believed a website could improve the efficiency and lower the cost of research through outsourcing. She shared her concept with two experienced entrepreneurs, economist Dan Knox and software engineer Ryan Abbott, who saw potential in the idea.
"Imagine eBay, but for scientific knowledge," says Iorns. "Outsourcing is going to revolutionize scientific research over the next five years."
While Science Exchange is ready to find a resource of almost any kind of experiment, right now it is concentrating on pre-clinical life science research and on contract research organizations and university facilities. The company has signed up about 5000 interested researchers and 1000 providers so far, and facilitated about 100 deals. In 2013, the company is aiming for the number of transactions in the thousands.
In recognition for her entrepreneurial spirit, last month, the Kauffman Foundation present Iorns with one of its annual awards that recognizes scholars who have gone on apply their knowledge in an innovative commercial venture. The foundation's Dominique Pahud explains: "Postdoctoral scholars who take the entrepreneurial path bring enormous promise to society and the economy."
For Iorns, this promise is realized in a company that can help researchers in three ways: by providing access to specialized equipment and skilled technicians, by presenting unique opportunities, and by saving money.
To start with, the company’s main missions is to provide researchers with access to specialized equipment and skilled technicians that are not available at the researcher's own outfit. "This was initially the case that Science Exchange was put together for," Knox says. For example, small biotech companies and smaller educational institutions that do not have the necessary technology for DNA sequencing can reach out to sequencing providers.
In addition, unique opportunities, such as research space on the international space station for experiments that need to be done in microgravity, can be found on the site.
And finally, researchers may be able to stretch their funding by going to a less expensive outside provider. For example, Iorns has seen bids to perform the same microRNA study range from $3500–$9000.
Knox explains: "It really comes down to the cost structure, and at the moment there's not a lot of transparency in the market." On average, a search through Science Exchange providers turns up a 50% discrepancy between the highest and lowest charge for a service.