By Elizabeth A. Streich
“Quartzy it.” That’s a new term that may become common lingo in research laboratories around the country, thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of two recent P&S graduates.
Quartzy is a new website designed to improve and streamline often makeshift processes for ordering reagents, transferring materials between laboratories, and tracking inventory. It was created by Adam Regelmann’07 MD/’06 PhD and Meena George’10 MD/’08 PhD, who met at Columbia while working in neighboring labs.
“We struck up a conversation about things that could be improved in lab life, especially information about available materials,” says Dr. George, who is now an intern at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center.
“People in a lab don’t always know who has what or where things are, and often there’s no standard format for keeping inventory,” says Dr. Regelmann, who is completing an internal medicine residency at Washington University in St. Louis. “Inventory also is rarely networked, so if the person who tracks it is out, no one else can find anything.”
“We realized quickly that we didn’t just want to complain, we wanted to improve the situation,” Dr. George adds.
Drs. George and Regelmann sought counsel from Donna See, director of strategic initiatives for Columbia Technology Ventures, which directs the patent process and provides business counsel for Columbia researchers and inventors. As a first test of their plan, Ms. See encouraged the two to enter the Olin Cup commercial business plan competition hosted by the Olin School of Business at Washington University. The plan won grand prize and was featured recently in an article in The New York Times.
Next, Ms. See recommended that Drs. Regelmann and George pitch their Quartzy plan to InSITE, a group of top students from Columbia and NYU business and law schools that helps entrepreneurs develop their businesses and raise venture capital. Among 40 companies InSITE considered in 2009, Quartzy was one of only five chosen for InSITE mentoring. “Through this program, we learned a lot about business strategy, honed our presentation skills, and we received general business guidance,” Dr. George says.
|Adam Regelmann, left, and Meena George, co-founders of Quartzy.|
They launched Quartzy as a free site (www.Quartzy.com) in January 2009 and membership has grown rapidly. Today the site has a few thousand members, including more than 150 at Columbia.
The Columbia lab of Christopher Henderson, PhD, professor of pathology & cell biology and neuroscience (in neurology) and co-director of the Motor Neuron Center, was among the first to join Quartzy. “We soon realized it would be an efficient way for our lab members to order supplies,” says Mariela Flambury, the lab’s former administrator. “Anything we can do to shorten the process for lab members, so they can spend more time doing research, we are interested in.”
Here is how the Quartzy site works: Members log on to Quartzy and submit a purchase request for review by the person in the lab responsible for ordering supplies. Ms. Flambury, who is now divisional administrator for the Motor Neuron Center, explains that “with Quartzy, the ordering process is totally automated. Lab administrators are alerted to new requests via email and they can accept or deny them.”
Clicking “accept” or “deny” sends a response to the person who made the request, with an option for the administrator to add a comment to explain when the order may arrive or why it was rejected.
“Before Quartzy, we maintained different databases for vendor names, product codes, quantities requested, etc., and we had to create our own ordering template, which lab members filled out and sent to me on email,” Ms. Flambury says.
The site is integrated with vendors so their information is already in the system. “Previously, lab members would have to locate the vendor’s address and send it to the lab administrator,” says Ms. Flambury. “Now lab members can quickly look for reagents they want to order. There are lots of categories for customization and specification.”
Quartzy has even moved beyond the laboratory. “We quickly realized that Quartzy could help facilitate an important aspect of technology transfer,” Ms. See says. “Each year our office processes close to 1,500 material transfers – animal models, data, protocols, reagents – to other academic and industry researchers, and vice versa. It occurred to us that Quartzy could streamline this paper-driven process and allow scientists to directly manage the transfer of their materials.”
Through Quartzy, any lab can request materials from any other lab on the website. The owner of the material reviews the request and can accept or deny it. Because both labs remain anonymous, potentially awkward situations are avoided if a request is rejected.
“This automates having to cold call other labs,” Ms. Flambury says. “It’s a much better, more efficient way to interface with other labs to request materials.”
On Quartzy, scientists can charge for transfers or share materials for free. “Sometimes a lab may have a material or reagent just sitting on the shelf, not being used, and this way it could help another scientist,” Dr. George says.
“Hopefully Quartzy will help labs save money and be more productive.”
“Our vision is that someday soon Quartzy will be the ‘go to’ site for science, helping scientists manage their lab’s day-to-day life,” says Dr. Regelmann. “We wanted to develop a way to increase scientific productivity and reduce wasteful spending in academic labs by providing networked software solutions to academic scientists.”
The name Quartzy? “Well, we wanted something unique but with meaning. For instance, Google comes from the word Googol, which represents one followed by a hundred zeros. Extending that idea we thought of Quartzy, which is the highest-scoring opening word in Scrabble,” Dr. George says. “We think it’s a cool name.”