Does the 'sharing economy' have a place in biotech?

The guiding principle behind fast-growing companies like Uber and Airbnb is simple: There's hidden value in private property, and if you can create a mechanism for sharing it, you can unlock that value. Applying that idea to cars and homes has become a multibillion-dollar proposition, and one startup is hoping the same philosophy can work for scientific research.

Formed in 2011, Palo Alto, CA's Science Exchange is, as The Economist phrases it, the "Uber for experiments." The site recruits labs from around the world to list their available services and then invites researchers to browse for their ideal partner. If you want, say, some RNA sequencing done, you can type just that into a search bar and Science Exchange will list the 22 labs that can help, with prices ranging from $304 to $1,510 per sample and an eBay-style feedback system rating each provider.

The idea is that the likes of Johns Hopkins University, the Mayo Clinic and Harvard Medical School aren't using all of their lab equipment all the time, so why not make a little extra money by contracting it out on a project-by-project basis? Like Airbnb, Science Exchange is just the medium for connecting two parties, and the company levies an undisclosed fee on each matchmaking for its trouble.

Elizabeth Iorns

So far, the service has been well received, founder Elizabeth Iorns told The Economist. Science Exchange has about 1,000 labs in its network and has presided over $43.6 million in quoted service fees, with nearly half of that coming in the first three quarters of this year, according to the magazine.

The company touts its service as potentially revolutionizing R&D, allowing "new researchers and citizen researchers to come and make cutting-edge discoveries using these world-class research labs," Iorns said in a promotional video. The world's CROs already have a grip on outsourced research, but Science Exchange believes it can crack an untapped market of small-time outfits that lack the resources or patience to negotiate intricate deals with, for example, Parexel International ($PRXL).

Of course, there's a reason such contracts are so complex and time-consuming: Science is competitive, and companies developing proprietary technologies want to be assured that their intellectual property is secure. Iorns said all Science Exchange vendors take a legal pledge not to divulge anything they find out in the course of their contract work, but, as The Economist notes, IP concerns could limit the service's uptake in the high-stakes biotech world.

- read the story
- watch Iorns' video

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