Sunday, March 2, 2014

Hello Startup (the sequel to “Goodbye Academia”)

My older daughter Eeva was born on January 8, 2010. Two years later, on January 7, 2012, ZappyLab was born. I was buying food at the Cambridge Trader Joe’s for Eeva’s birthday party. Alexei called me while I was in the store and asked if we could build an app for biologists. Irina and Alexei (the co-founders of ZappyLab) were making kiddie apps on iOS for a while, hence this question. I told Alexei that phones have no place in the lab, and suggested that instead he build an app for African safaris, so that when someone sees a hippo, they can share the coordinates and have other people come to the spot (yes, I have a million stupid ideas – that’s partly why every startup needs a partner – to weed out the stupid ones). Twenty minutes later, I thought of a protocol checklist app. That’s something that would be useful to me in the lab.

I called Alexei, he said Irina would build it with his help; they know apps and I know science and scientists. We would give scientists a terrific productivity tool and it would spread like fire quickly with a million downloads at $1 each, because no one else has made anything like this. The night after Eeva’s wonderful birthday party, I stayed up and wrote the specs for the protocol app. The specs included the essential ability to track changes in each run of the protocol and record in the app precisely what was done in the experiment that day.

Three weeks later on January 27, walking home from lab, I called Alexei and asked if we could add a “share” button to the app and crowdsource a central protocol repository. For Alexei, everything technical is easy – he has been doing exactly things like this for ten years. The only wrinkle in our plan – if we want to build a crowdsourced repository, the app has to be free, and of course so does the repository. The revenue from the app sales suddenly evaporated.

I called Michael Eisen, described the idea, and asked if PLOS could build it. Mike said that the idea is genius, but we have to make it happen, not PLOS. I called Jasper Rine and asked how to do it, without quitting the postdoc; a nonprofit? Jasper said that there is no way I would get a grant for this as a postdoc and made it clear that what I wanted to do is nearly impossible without quitting.

We needed a plan B. At 3am on Saturday, a week later, I woke up and figured out how to do it. What do all scientists do? Count! We would build the Lab Counter app (now inside Bench Tools), sell a million copies of that, and use the proceeds to build the protocol app and repository. I quietly crawled out of bed into the bathroom (parents were visiting and sleeping in the living room, and I could not write anywhere else). For the next two hours, I sat in the bathroom writing the specs on for the Lab Counter. Called Alexei and Irina in the morning and we decided to build this. Irina would take the lead on developing this, while also taking care of three little daughters. Alexei would help her, while working as a CTO of a fashion-blogging startup. (Yes, even with a partner or two, you will have naïve ideas that all three of you buy into.)

Took us a month after that to understand that we needed another plan. I had no plan any more, but I knew we had to build the protocol repository. I knew we had to try, or I would never forgive myself. So I picked up the phone, and called my ex-boss Joe Duncan. Asked him if he would be an angel investor and help to make this happen. Next day, after leaving the lab, instead of going home, I took a train to New Jersey and spent the weekend telling Joe about the idea. He got it instantly. And he agreed to be our lead angel investor.

Two days later, Alexei registered Doing the paperwork and getting the angel investment would take too long. We knew we had to start and would do it. So I borrowed $50K from parents. Alexei and Irina put $50K of their money into the company. We incorporated, Alexei resigned as the CTO of the other startup, and for almost two years, he has been in the basement, working insane hours every single day, to build everything that we have built.

I’ll skip most of the two years and fast forward to today. We understood that there is no crowdsourcing without the crowd, and have done everything possible to give scientists amazing free tools and resources to build up our user base. And we have built the protocol repository and the checklist app. But getting users is much harder and slower than anyone ever imagines. And almost nothing goes viral on its own. That’s why I had to leave my postdoc.

But funding ZappyLab is hard, when everything you are building is free (indeed, research or startup – funding is never easy). We will be sustainable because we will charge vendors for links to their chemicals. But we can’t do that until we have hundreds of thousands of users. We are firmly a pre-revenue company.

Both of our families have burned through all of our savings. We are deep in debt. Maxed-out credit cards. Four weeks of funding left in the ZappyLab bank account. We have given everything we have financially, emotionally, and physically to the idea of the protocol repository. We have nothing left to give.

That’s why the Kickstarter campaign – you scientists have to help us make this happen. Or it won’t. And if we go bankrupt, it is possible that someone else will create it. But consider that no one has managed to pull this off until now. What if without us it takes another 20 years? What if it never happens? This is something that simply must exist. You may save yourself a year of work by backing us on Kickstarter with a few bucks. You can help to save billions of dollars for our society and to speed up research. It’s worth it.


  1. hey! it looks like the kickstarter isn't linked to a facebook account! You might want to consider promoting the project on FB to reach more "friends of scientists." I came across your blog post from a facebook post of another scientist friend and sent the link along to students and PIs in my grad-school laboratory (I opted for consulting over academia... despite dreams of being a research scientist, but I find myself constantly coming up with projects and sending them back to my already overwhelmed professors and lab groups)

  2. Thank you Alea. Just that our experience with Facebook before wasn't exactly productive. So we have been concentrating on Twitter.