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'EBay for Science' Could Enable Outsourcing of Experiments

The creator of a marketplace for scientific research explains how it could transform the enterprise.

By Zoë Corbyn of Nature magazine

Last week, Science Exchange in Palo Alto, Calif., launched a Web site allowing scientists to outsource their research to "providers"--other researchers and institutions that have the facilities and equipment to meet requesting scientists' needs. Nature asked the company's co-founder, researcher-turned-entrepreneur Elizabeth Iorns, how the website works, and what an online marketplace for experiments could mean for the future of research.

What is Science Exchange?

It is an online marketplace for scientific experiments. Imagine eBay, but for scientific knowledge. You post an experiment that you want to outsource, and scientific service providers submit bids to do the work. The goal is to make scientific research more efficient by making it easy for researchers to access experimental expertise from core facilities with underutilized capacity.

Where did the idea come from?

It was through my work as a breast-cancer biologist at the University of Miami in Florida. I wanted to conduct some experiments outside my field, and realized that I needed an external provider. What followed was an entirely frustrating process, and when I found the provider it was difficult to pay them because they were outside my university's purchasing system. When I talked to other scientists, it became clear that this was a really big problem, but also one that could be solved with a marketplace. Development of the Web site started around a kitchen table in Miami in April.

Why would researchers want to participate?

So they can access technologies that their university doesn't offer; if their own institutional facilities are too busy; if they just generally want to speed up the research process; or if they want a good deal. Prices can vary dramatically: for example, through our platform I have seen bids to perform a microRNA study ranging from $3,500 to $9,000. Those who do the work can also build reputations independent of their publications by gaining feedback from those they work with.

Why might universities want their facilities to participate?

There are huge budget incentives. It allows institutions to make the most of their existing facilities, which means that they don't have to subsidize them as much. Also, if researchers can use Science Exchange to access the latest equipment, institutions can be more flexible about when they buy new instruments.

How are you intending to make a profit?

We take a small commission if we match a researcher with a provider and they use us to do the transaction--5 percent for projects under $5,000, which is tiny in comparison with what researchers can save by examining prices from multiple providers. For projects costing more than $5,000, it is a lower commission and a sliding scale: we aren't going to charge $50,000 on a $1-million experiment.

How are you funded?

By Ycombinator, a start-up accelerator program in Mountain View, California, and angel investors. We have raised $320,000 so far and are looking to raise another $1 million. We have big plans to expand.

What has the response been like?

We launched after a short beta period and the growth is crazy. We now have close to 1,000 scientists using our site and 50-100 signing up every day. More than 70 institutions have providers registered with us, including Stanford University in California, Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and, of course, Miami.

Is the service limited to particular regions of the world?

Anyone from anywhere can use it. We had initially thought our focus would be in the United States but we have had a lot of interest from overseas researchers, particularly interest in the facilities that are available here.

Are any similar services available?

We are the first. Directories of core facilities do exist, but they aren't exhaustive, and they require the researcher to contact the providers themselves. There are other outsourcing services--such as Amazon's Web site Mechanical Turk--but they are for unspecialized tasks. Science Exchange providers must have access to specialized equipment and be highly trained.

Where do you hope to be five years from now?

Having created this global marketplace, we want to see an even broader range of experiments outsourced beyond just core facilities. Scientists should be spending their grant money in a way that allows them to specialize and make use of each others' specializations. Imagine getting paid to do other people's experiments one day a week, and then using that money to bootstrap your own research.

How disruptive could this be to the way science is done?

Totally disruptive. It could transform the current very inefficient use of funds and dramatically change the way in which scientists do research.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on August 19, 2011.

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