At the recent annual meeting of the Association of Biomolecular Resource Facilities in Palm Springs, Calif., two groups launched online resources intended to match researchers with sequencing and other scientific services, joining several players who are similarly looking to serve as middlemen between scientists and service providers.
At the conference, ABRF launched its own Core Marketplace, a free listing of core labs that researchers can search by service, institution, location, and other parameters in order to find core labs or service providers who can meet their experimental needs. Also at the meeting, Austin, Texas-based startup Genohub showcased the beta version of its scientific services matchmaking resource, which is focused solely on sequencing services.
These offerings join two others that launched in mid-2011: BlueSeq, a sequencing-focused services marketplace; and Science Exchange, which aims to give researchers a single site from which to order scientific services ranging from amino acid analysis to zinc finger gene knockouts. Another firm following a similar model, Assay Depot, focuses primarily on services for pharmaceutical research.
The growing list of choices for such services signals increasing demand from researchers looking for a quick and inexpensive way to meet their experimental needs, but also serves a need for core labs and service providers who want to raise awareness of their offerings and increase their profitability.
Anoja Perera, manager of the Molecular Biology Facility at the Stowers Institute and a member of the ABRF executive board, told In Sequence that the ABRF Core Marketplace is a natural offshoot from the organization's email listserv, which has long served as a forum for researchers to seek out experimental resources if their own facility is lacking equipment or has a backlog. Moving that effort to the website, which is built upon the Core Facilities Database maintained by the Vermont Genetics Network, should expand its reach and allow more researchers to find labs, and vice versa, she said.
A typical situation for a core lab, she noted, is to be one or two lanes shy of a complete Illumina sequencing run, which can lead to delays for the researchers who are waiting for those lanes to fill up. With the marketplace, she explained, a lab can post that it has the lanes available and quote a price that will allow it to cover its costs and get the run finished more quickly. Likewise, researchers who lack their own sequencing equipment, or just need a bit of extra capacity for a short time, can use the site to find a suitable provider.
Bryan Fleming, tech specialist for the Vermont Genetics Network, who maintains the Core Facilities Database and developed the ABRF Core Marketplace, described the new resource as "a Craigslist for cores, not a Kayak of cores." The approach is simple and no fuss: labs can register for free and provide as much or as little detail about their services as they like. Pricing information isn't required, but labs can provide it if they choose to. The resource is free for both parties and ABRF doesn't charge a fee, so its primary function is to put researchers and labs in touch with each other so they can conduct their own transactions.
The low barrier to entry for participating labs seems to be paying off. The site now includes services for 420 labs, up from 400 just over a month ago.
Other scientific exchanges are looking to follow more of a "Kayak" model, however. Genohub aims to provide a full-service offering for researchers that will allow them to comparison-shop based on price as well as other factors, and it is focusing entirely on sequencing services. Researchers input their requirements based on the type of sequencing they need performed, their preferred platform, library prep, whether bioinformatics is required, whether the sequencing is performed in a CLIA lab, and so on, and the system pulls together "packages" based on information provided by participating labs. Results can be sorted based on price or turnaround time.
Unlike the ABRF Core Marketplace and BlueSeq, Genohub allows researchers to pay for the service directly through its website with a credit card or purchase order. It also provides an interface through which both parties can track the entire project throughout its lifecycle in one place – for example, the service provider can signal when a sample has been received, when a job has been started, and when the results are being shipped.
The company charges service providers a commission that varies based on the volume of orders per year and the price of the orders. Currently, the company is looking to attract more service providers before it markets the site more broadly to the research community, said co-founder Pouya Razavi.
This is a similar tack that Science Exchange took when it launched its service. Dan Knox, company cofounder, told In Sequence that the firm had a "quiet launch" in August 2011 and spent nearly a year building relationships with service labs and contract research organizations before marketing directly to the user community. He said that the firm now has around 1,400 labs and CROs listed on its website. These providers offer around 1,200 different scientific services, of which DNA sequencing is among the most popular.
Knox said that the company is performing outreach to educate the scientific community about the benefits of using core labs and service providers rather than performing every step of an experiment in house. He noted that there's a strong "do-it-yourself mentality" in many research groups, which means they often don't benefit from the economies of scale and other efficiencies that outsourcing can offer.
Knox estimated that Science Exchange has around 10,000 active customers and that the site has served as the middleman for "thousands" of projects to date. Approximately 70 percent of its users are from academia and government and the remainder are from industry — primarily biotechs and large pharmas. Around 20 percent of its users are repeat customers for the service, he said.
Like ABRF and Genohub, Science Exchange believes its site provides just as much of a service for core labs as it does for customers. "A lot of core facilities and commercial labs are looking for more work," he said, "and they see us as a marketing channel."
In addition, the fact that Science Exchange can facilitate online payment for projects is viewed as a benefit by many core labs that don’t have that capability, he noted. Science Exchange adds a commission to the price that it charges researchers who use the service.
Knox said he views the emergence of newer players in this market as evidence that there is strong demand for such match-making services. "In some ways I think we're still at the early stages of this," he said. "The more people who see this as a valuable business, and see the value in connecting people with core labs," the better for the market.
Nevertheless, he believes that over time there will only be room for one large player in this area, "and our goal is that it's Science Exchange."
This article has been updated from a previous version to clarify the number of projects Science Exchanged has facilitated to date.