Another science startup that's changing how research is done. An interview with Elizabeth Iorns of Science Exchange.

I recently had the chance to sit down with Elizabeth Iorns of Science Exchange to talk about her company and her vision for accelerating research and development and making research more efficient and reproducible. I really wish Science Exchange had been around when I was finishing my PhD. It would have saved me tons of time and saved the lab money, too.

Special note:
Elizabeth and I are offering a free seminar series on making the transition from academia to industry. If you’re interested in having us speak at your institution, please contact elizabeth.iorns @ scienceexchange.com.

How did you get the idea for Science Exchange?

I came up with the idea for Science Exchange during my postdoctoral research. I needed to find a service provider to conduct immunology experiments outside my expertise, but found the search process frustrating. I had to google the right keywords, email dozens of different labs, figure out pricing and turnaround times, all the while trying to evaluate quality metrics in the absence of user feedback or reviews.

This showed me that the current system for collaborating and outsourcing was extremely inefficient. It’s hard to find people with expertise, time consuming to communicate, and difficult to evaluate. On the other hand, other industries had already solved many of the problems seen in science by creating a marketplace, such as AirBnB for accommodations or Priceline for flights. After researching the space and discovering that a marketplace for scientific experiments didn’t exist, I took the leap and created one at scienceexchange.com.

Place Science Exchange in the ecosystem of online tools and services for researchers. What niche do you fill?

Science Exchange fills a unique position for scientists in leveraging online tools for the benefit of offline research. Other tools allow you to build online profiles, organize publications and reagents, or keep online lab books. These provide utility in the form of organization, not in the actual performance of research. Science Exchange is likely the only tool bridging offline and online use cases for research performance, providing a platform to identify collaborators or service providers, and order experimental services from these specialists.

Who is Science Exchange for? What sort of people (postdocs/PIs/techs) are using Science Exchange, and what kinds of work are they doing? Is this only for academic institutions, or can industry labs / CROs participate?

Most of our users are scientists from academic and industry labs in the US. They are predominantly postdocs and graduate students at this moment, though the platform is open to academic, industry, and citizen scientists. Providers, however, are limited to qualified scientific service providers from core facilities and commercial research institutes. We have over 1,000 scientific service providers already listed, at hundreds of US research institutes.

What’s the most popular service people request? What’s the service that’s most commonly listed?

Commonly outsourced experiments such as microarray analysis, cloning of molecular constructs and generation of transgenic mice are the most popular services that people request (and are the most commonly listed services as well). There are some really interesting specialist services that can also be accessed through Science Exchange, such as knife-edge scanning microscopy at 3Scan, Inc, or microgravity experiments aboard the International Space Station.

For a researcher such as the ones who read this blog, how would they get started with Science Exchange?

It’s really easy – researchers can visit http://scienceexchange.com to search for an experiment type, view and compare providers, and request an estimate from a provider they would like to work with. It’s completely free. Their chosen provider will then respond with pricing and turnaround time and if the researcher is happy with the estimate, they can accept it and begin the experiment. You don’t even have to fill out an online profile, because we can import your profile information directly from your Mendeley profile.

Getting down to details for a moment…
How do you handle payments?

This is actually a really important benefit of Science Exchange. One of the biggest hassles of paying external core facilities is providing payment, as they are often not approved vendors within university purchasing systems. This makes the process of payment difficult for a researcher, having to submit W4s, manual purchase orders, etc.

We remove this hassle by being an approved vendor within university purchasing systems, including SciQuest, Peoplesoft, and Ariba. Researchers can choose Science Exchange from their ordering system and generate a purchase order for Science Exchange. We then take care of paying the provider once the experiment is completed.

How does a researcher coordinate with the facility doing the work, or the facility with the lab having the work done?

Communication is built into the Science Exchange platform. You can ask questions, submit updates, or upload data files through your online project page (which is created once a researcher accepts an estimate from a provider). Every time either party submits a new update or question, they receive an email notification as well.

How do you know the facility is trustworthy and will meet their promised cost / timeline?

Only qualified service providers from core or commercial organizations can be listed as a facility on Science Exchange. Of course this does not always guarantee that a facility will be able to meet a user’s requested budget or time deadlines. To identify the best providers we encourage all researchers to rate and submit comments on their experience of working with each provider. Over time, this rating system should become a valuable tool to identify the most trustworthy and reliable facilities.

What happens if they don’t? What happens if samples are damaged in transit?

Many service facilities provide guarantees for any sustained damages themselves. Suffice to say, it hasn’t been an issue thus far.

Do service providers have to be listed as co-authors or do they retain any intellectual property rights in the work they provide?

In general, the service is provided on a fee-for-service basis. As a result, all intellectual property belongs to the requester, confidentially is ensured, and there is no co-authorship agreement. We do encourage our requesters to acknowledge the provider in any presentations or publications that arise from their work. If providers make significant intellectual contributions to the experiment, co-authorship is encouraged at the discretion of the requester. In addition, requesters and providers can negotiate their own terms of service for intellectual property rights.

Do you have any success stories or interesting use cases that could give our readers a better sense of what the Science Exchange community is like?

Researchers across institutions, small and large, have leveraged Science Exchange in different ways. Some researchers have used it to find and access potential collaborators. A UC Davis researcher was able to access human skin samples for a unique neural crest cell population through the UPenn Tissue and Keratinocyte Procurement Core. Separately, a researcher at a small private institution with limited access to shared resource facilities was able to outsource mass spectrometric analysis to a proteomics facility at the University of Albany.

Science Exchange also provides a platform to independently validate or authenticate results. One researcher needed urgent authentication of several cell lines submitted to a high-impact journal. She used Science Exchange to find a provider at the University of Arizona, completing the authentication at a price 80% lower than previous purchases.

What benefits does Science Exchange bring to the institution, as well as to the individual researcher?

There are various benefits to both researchers and institutions. For researchers, Science Exchange provides a transparent platform to easily compare and request services from thousands of service providers. This can help an individual to more easily outsource their experiments, focus on their research specialties, and make better use of their grant money through cost-effective use of resources.

For service providers, Science Exchange presents a way to increase utilization and manage clients. The platform provides a free, easy-to-use facility page listing the experimental services they offer and automatically notifying them when researchers request their services. Science Exchange makes it easy to work with researchers with free project management tools, compliance assistance and guaranteed payment within 30 days of project completion.

At a broader level, Science Exchange allows institutions to access the data associated with their core facilities. This data can assist with strategic decisions regarding future investments in facilities, benchmarking of cost performance, and volume reporting to demonstrate effective usage to funding agencies. Our free software also significantly reduces the administrative burden of managing core facilities and ensures payment from core facility users.

Keeping in mind that it’s still early days yet, what impact do you see Science Exchange having on how research is done?

Science Exchange holds the potential to bring much greater transparency and efficiency to the research process. Increased utilization through a centralized marketplace will help to elucidate market rates for scientific services and reduce costs to researchers across institutions. Increased outsourcing to specialists can also help to reduce scientific expenditure and waste, and instead help researchers to focus on their own specialties. This serves to improve the overall quality of research, enhance the robustness of outcomes, and increase the pace of scientific discoveries.

Thanks so much for your time!

Thank you, I enjoyed speaking with you.


I really wish I had known about this when I was finishing my PhD. It would have saved me lots of time and saved the lab some money, too. What do you think? Can you think of an experiment you want to do but don’t have the resources locally to get done?