Science Exchange welcomed by researchers, shunned by administration

Dec. 4, 2012, 7:42 a.m.

Science Exchange, an online platform that helps researchers find scientific services, has helped Stanford researchers conduct experiments and find resources, however the School of Medicine has been reluctant to fully embrace the program.

The startup creates an online marketplace for scientific facilities and services provided by universities and companies around the world, which otherwise may be difficult to find or access. Despite providing facilities at Stanford’s peer institutions, administrators have barred any listing of the University’s facilities on the website.

Through Science Exchange a researcher can search for a service they need and receive a list of providers of that service, as well as their prices, from institutions and labs around the United States and elsewhere. For example, if a researcher is interested in DNA sequencing, a simple search on Science Exchange’s website gives details of 38 possible facilities where it could be carried out, listed by price and location.

“We centralized the marketplace, where all scientific services can easily be searched for as if being searched for on Amazon,” said Bilal Mahmood ’09, head of business development at Science Exchange.

Mahmood said that at least four labs at Stanford have used Science Exchange in the past couple of months, but Stanford does not allow Science Exchange to list any service providers or facilities in the University, despite allowing them when the startup was initially launched.

“It is kind of unfortunate on that end, that we have a lot less service providers at Stanford, but we have a lot of researchers using the platform,” Mahmood said. “Apparently [Stanford] has ruled about external work….They are apprehensive about having their facilities’ services listed publicly.”

Science Exchange has more than 1,000 services listed at more than 400 institutions and research facilities across the United States, according to Science Exchange’s website.

Once the researcher has found the service they need, Science Exchange acts as a payment intermediary and allows the researcher and the service provider to communicate and coordinate different aspects of their project.

“The idea was born out of the fact that [some] of the services that are offered, like sequencing, are really difficult for researchers to find in a centralized place,” Mahmood said.

The service providers set the price they charge for their services, but according to Mahmood, Science Exchange has started to see some of these prices start to converge.

“We have seen [the prices] in several services consolidating around [certain] pricing,” he said. “They [the service providers] have seen what the competition is offering, and they see they need to lower their price.”

Toby Ward, a senior breast cancer researcher at the Stanford Cancer Institute’s Division of Oncology, has used Science Exchange for chemical detection services at Georgetown University, as well as through a private company that is formulating antibodies used against a target of interest on breast cancer cells.

“Prior to that type of service like Science Exchange, [finding scientific services] was kind of laborious because you had to look in the literature to find someone that knew how to do the technique that you need performed, and then try to contact them by email, and try to figure out a way to pay them and or give them authorship on your paper,” Ward said.

“What has been really been helpful is now we have a platform where A, I can find someone to do the work, and B, I actually have a system in place to pay for them off our grant funding,” he said.

Mark Kaganovich, a doctoral candidate in genetics at Stanford, has also used Science Exchange to arrange experiments and was pleased with its model.

“I think [Science Exchange] has the potential to really change the way that people think about running experimental labs… because they can outsource experiments,” he said.

Science Exchange has more than 400 institutions listed in its database, including UC-Berkeley, Harvard and Johns Hopkins, but none listed at the Farm.

“We currently aren’t able to actually list any service providers or facilities at Stanford University, which is unfortunate because Stanford facilities were one of the first listed when we launched [Science Exchange] last year,” Bilal said.

Kaganovich felt that it would be beneficial to list Stanford’s scientific facilities on the Science Exchange for its own students and faculty.

“I also found some facilities on campus that do [the experiments] for me as well. It would have been great if one can search for those through Science Exchange,” says Kaganovich. “It’s too bad. I think it would be a benefit for the [scientific] community at Stanford.”

The Dean’s Office of the Stanford School of Medicine and the faculty advisory board oversees the School’s core facilities, called service centers. They decided that Science Exchange’s advertising of core facilities to external business is not compatible with the mission of the service centers within the School of Medicine, according to emails between Science Exchange and Bruce Koch, senior director of the Discovery and Technological Service Centers.

According to Koch, one limit imposed by the University is that only 15 percent or less of the business of these core facilities can come from non-academic researchers. This limit is set to reflect the noncommercial nature of the University mission and reflect its non-profit status.

Koch also highlighted the 5 percent transaction fee Science Exchange charges that would come largely from “the increasingly scarce NIH [National Institute of Health] funding of the users.”

Koch pointed out that a free alternative to Science Exchange, called eagle-i, will be adopted by the School of Medicine and will launch by the end of this month. Eagle-i is an open-access platform developed at Harvard that helps researchers find resources at participating universities.

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