ZappyLab Creates Social Apps for Biologists

4/1/14Follow @tanseyverse

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.

ZappyLab Co-founder Lenny Teytelman

ZappyLab Co-founder Lenny Teytelman

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 … Next Page »

Bernadette Tansey is a freelance journalist based in Berkeley, CA. Follow @tanseyverse

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