“Quartzy it.” That’s a new term Mariela Flambury, divisional administrator for Columbia’s Motor Neuron Center, predicts will be commonly used among laboratory researchers ordering reagents for use in research.
Quartzy is a new website designed to facilitate and streamline processes for ordering reagents and for transferring materials between laboratories. It was created by Adam Regelmann’07 M.D./’06 Ph.D. and Meena George’10 M.D./’08 Ph.D., who met when both were M.D./Ph.D. students at Columbia. While working in neighboring labs, they bonded over their shared frustrations about unsystematic procedures for ordering, sharing, and tracking laboratory inventory and their mutual entrepreneurial natures.
“We struck up a conversation about things that could be improved in lab life, especially information about available materials,” says Dr. George (right), who started an internship at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York in July. He will follow his internship with an ophthalmology residency at UCLA.
“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,” says Dr. Regelmann, who is completing an internal medicine residency at Washington University in St. Louis.
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. We think it’s a cool name,” says Dr. George.
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. Ms. See encouraged the two as they developed their business model. Their business plan took the grand prize in the Olin Cup commercial business plan competition hosted by the Olin School of Business at Washington University.
Ms. See also recommended that Drs. Regelmann and George pitch their plan for Quartzy to InSITE, an entrepreneurial mentorship program that brings together top students from Columbia and NYU business and law schools to help New York entrepreneurs develop their businesses and pursue venture capital and other investments. Quartzy was chosen in 2009 from among 40 companies as one of five InSITE companies to be paired with students. “Through this program, we learned a lot about business models and strategies, about presentation skills, and we received general business guidance,” says Dr. George.
They launched the site – www.quartzy.com – in January 2009. Membership is free and the number of members started growing rapidly; today the site has a few thousand members, including more than 150 at Columbia.
Drs. Regelmann and George co-founded Quartzy with Jayant Kulkarni, who received a Ph.D. in applied mechanics from Cornell and recently completed a neuroscience fellowship at Columbia.
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. As Ms. Flambury, former lab administrator for Christopher Henderson’s neurobiology lab, explains, “With Quartzy, the ordering process is totally automated. The lab administrator gets alerted to new requests via email. Lab admin can see requests and accept or deny them.”
Clicking “accept” or “deny” prompts a response to the person who requested the reagent, with an option for the administrator to add a comment to explain when the order may arrive or why it was rejected.
“Before, 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,” says Ms. Flambury.
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 ordered. There are lots of categories for customization and specification.”
Dr. Henderson’s lab was quick to join Quartzy. “We soon realized it would be an efficient way for our lab members to order supplies,” says Ms. Flambury. “Anything we can do to shorten the process for lab members, so they can spend more time doing research, we are interested in.”
The site also can track inventory. “People in a lab don’t always know who has what or where things are in a lab. Often there’s no standard format for keeping inventory, and it’s also not networked so if the person who tracks it is out, no one will be able to know where things are,” explains Dr. Regelmann.
Drs. Regelmann and George credit Ms. See and Orin Herskowitz, vice president of intellectual property and technology transfer for Columbia Technology Ventures, for encouraging them to expand beyond inventory ordering, and tracking to technology transfer as well.
“We quickly realized that Quartzy could help facilitate an important aspect of technology transfer,” says Ms. See. “Our office processes close to 1,500 materials transfers – animal models, data, protocols, reagents – each year to other academic researchers and industry, and vice versa. It occurred to us that Quartzy could be a platform for streamlining this paper-driven process, moving it online and allowing scientists to directly manage the transfer of their materials.”
Through Quartzy, requesting materials from another lab is anonymous. The owner of the material can review the request and accept or deny it. Because the person requesting the material does not know the identity of the lab being contacted, potentially awkward situations are avoided if a request is rejected.
“This automates having to cold call other labs,” says Ms. Flambury. “It’s a much better, more efficient way to interface with other labs to request materials.”
On Quartzy, scientists are able to charge for transfers or share the 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,” says Dr. George.
“Hopefully Quartzy will help labs save money, be more efficient with how they spend money, help them make more informed purchases since they will know what’s available and needed, and help scientists locate things more quickly.”
“Our vision is that someday soon Quartzy will be the ‘go to’ site for science, helping scientists manage their day-to-day life in labs,” says Dr. Regelmann (pictured at left).