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What do you get when a scientist, an engineer, and a business woman start a company?
You get ZappyLab, which co-founder Lenny Teytelman described as “GitHub for science research” in an email to VentureBeat. ZappyLab is in the process of raising a new round of funding and recently joined SkyDeck, an accelerator program affiliated with UC Berkeley.
While we’re used to seeing companies build tools to help web and software developers do their jobs more easily, as well as to share knowledge and resources, we rarely find ones approaching science research in the same way — but ZappyLab is.
Founded in 2012, the company’s main goal is to build a central, crowdsourced, and open repository for protocols, which are written procedural methods for the design and implementation of an experiment.
As the company’s Kickstarter page for its repository project reads, “Imagine you spend 3 months instead of a week to do a simple DNA transformation in a new species. After much frustration and many cups of coffee later, you discover that you need to do it at room temperature instead of the 42-degree water bath. This is a tiny but critical detail in a common technique. Unfortunately, there is no effective way to let others working with this species know about your discovery.”
To achieve this, Teytelman told me, the company is taking a two-phase approach.
This first phase was ZappyLab’s user acquisition strategy — building tools and giving them away for free. In the first phase, ZappyLab built a collection of “mobile and web tools … to acquire a user base and build a community for the crowdsourcing,” said Teytelman. One of these, PubChase, is a science and medical literature recommendation engine the company launched last year. It’s also released Bench Tools, a suite of tools for science researchers to use in their lab work, such as a molarity calculator, lab counter, timer, and so on.
The second phase is ZappyLab’s “GitHub for protocols,” Protocols.io, which the company crowdfunded through Kickstarter in March and is currently in a beta phase. Protocols.io works the same way as GitHub: Just as a web developer building a web app would go to GitHub and fork (copy and use independently) a freely available plug-in or template coded up by another developer, scientists and researchers can go to Protocols.io to fork experiment protocols and conduct a particular experiment according to another researcher’s methods.
“It was a rather risky strategy to build free tools for user acquisition (PubChase and others are our marketing in essense; we have done no traditional advertising) instead of just building Protocols.io. But we knew that otherwise we’d have zero traction, no crowdsourcing, and we would be dead on arrival,” said Teytelman.
ZappyLab wants Protocols.io to become a powerful source of experiment protocols that researchers can pull from instead of having to create or hunt them down in other ways.
“We have started to partner with famous vendors to seed the repository with high-quality science protocols,” said Teytelman.
The team released a new update this past weekend. “It now allows forking/copying any protocol, modifying it, and ‘running’ it with all changes recorded in the cloud-synchronized journal. It now works the same on the web/iOS/Android and provides for an instant lab notebook snapshot of exactly how the method was performed on a particular day. This is 90 percent of what we record in our paper lab notebooks now, and our platform makes this digital and [more] importantly, easy,” Teytelman said.
ZappyLab grows its business
Currently, ZappyLab has about 5,000 registered PubChase users, and a total of 17,000 Android and iOS downloads of all of its apps. While this might not seem like very much, remember that ZappyLab has been using zero marketing and advertising, and science researchers are largely unaware that tools like this exist for them, according to the company. If we look at article management and sharing company Mendeley, for example, it now has about 3 million users since launching in 2008, and it was acquired by Elsevier in April 2013, showing that there’s a need for such tools. Another service that also launched in 2008, Academia.edu, has more than 12 million users, although those include academic researchers of all kinds, not just in sciences.
ZappyLab recently joined the UC Berkeley-affiliated accelerator SkyDeck, and plans to use its time there to double down on Protocols.io. After a reaching its Kickstarter campaign goal for Protocols.io in the spring, the company is now working to “implement the key functionality on the web/mobile for protocols, to continue seeding the repository with popular protocols, to grow the user base on protocols, and to get the crowdsourced annotations going,” Teytelman said.
The funding it’s currently raising will all go towards Protocols.io, the company told me. So far, ZappyLab has raised about $225,000 of the $1.5 million it’s seeking, from previous and new angel investors, new investor Lighthouse Capital, and its Kickstarter money.
The company is already receiving revenue but declined to share the details because of contractual confidentiality.
ZappyLab was founded by Alexei Stoliartchouk, Irina Makkaveeva, and Lenny Teytelman and is based in Berkeley, Calif.
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