IIT Institute of Design
It solves a real problem. And even thow it is a niche one, it is a solution that can help clean bureocracy and empower our new generation of scientists.
Catalyst is a service for scientists working in university, government and startup laboratories that connects those who need access to specialized, expensive lab instruments to laboratories willing to share them at a rate they determine. Our service, which includes a website, mobile application and branded welcome package, supports sharing and improves the experience by making it easy to: list or search for instruments, schedule lab visits, manage payments and support communication—both on and offline—between “guest” scientists and “host” labs. Catalyst eliminates access to instruments as a barrier to scientific research and gives scientists a new way to connect and collaborate.2. The Brief: Summarize the problem you set out to solve. What was the context for the project, and what was the challenge posed to you?
Scientists in public institutions, including academia and government labs, often lack access to cutting edge and specialized scientific instruments. These instruments may cost hundreds of thousands of dollars or more, and may not be practical or affordable to purchase, so instead, scientists make do with the instruments at hand. Because older instruments are less reliable, it takes longer to get defensible results needed to publish findings and apply for grants. A lack of access to specialized instruments also limits the scope and type of research that scientists can do.
Our project began when a PhD candidate in Chemistry from Howard University in Washington, D.C., explained how limited resources have affected his research. Among other issues, his use of older instruments made his experiments more difficult to replicate, which he felt limited the value of his work among his peers. As we looked deeper, we realized that this problem is widespread, and it’s limiting the careers of young scientists and the overall quality of scientific research in the United States.
The National Science Board reported a 20% decrease in per-student funding for the nation’s 101 major public research universities from 2002 to 2010, and a widening gap in per-student funding between public and private research universities, leading to fewer scientists generating research and less diversity and opportunity in the field.
We set out to design a service that would allow anyone, from any laboratory, access to the lab instruments they need to do their best work.
We felt that whatever we designed needed to emphasize “access,” be simple and straightforward and legally and financially viable. We also knew that we needed to understand more about the way the scientific community operates, as well as the particularities of lab culture, to develop a service that felt authentic and appropriate.
Initially, we focused on the fact that high quality lab instruments are often mothballed in the storage facilities of corporate R&D labs and explored the transfer of those instruments as a possible avenue for providing access. However, through secondary research and expert interviews, we learned that there are serious logistical and legal challenges to the purchase or donation of second-hand laboratory instruments, both for corporations and receiving laboratories.
A turning point came when we learned that scientists address the problem of access through informal sharing agreements, but that sharing isn’t easy. Without existing relationships, scientists can't know whether nearby labs have the instrument they need. Informal sharing agreements also lack clarity around reciprocity and payment, and miscommunication around scheduling and lab rules can cause frustration on both sides.
Once we focused on improving the sharing experience, we needed to give laboratories a reason to share beyond the potential to earn a modest income. Because it’s difficult today for scientists to collaborate on research or grant applications with others outside their labs, we knew that the opportunity to connect with other scientists could draw potential “host” laboratories to the service.
We conducted our project in three phases. In the first phase, we focused on understanding the depth and breadth of the problem of access for scientists in academic R&D labs. We looked at reports from the National Science Foundation on trends in national, state and corporate funding and talked to PhD candidates at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and a lab manager at the Illinois Institute of Technology to hear their stories first hand.
Because our original hypothesis focused on the transfer of idle lab instruments from corporate labs to academic labs to solve the problem of access, we conducted additional secondary research and expert interviews to better understand: why corporations store instruments instead of selling, recycling or donating them; the perception of second-hand lab instruments by scientists and lab managers in academic settings; and the activities and cost involved in the handling, transfer, use and maintenance of second-hand lab instruments.
We realized that we had a problem worth solving, but the wrong solution. Our research uncovered serious barriers to shifting instruments from corporate to academic labs, including complicated logistics and liability and safety issues. An interview activity we created to explore other concepts led our team to focus our next phase of research on exploring the idea of sharing, which we learned was a workaround already in use in the scientific community.
In the second phase of our project, we set out to learn as much as we could about sharing and developing a set of design principles for our service. Using what we already knew, we created a service journey as a hypothesis for how the service might work. We crafted a Google survey to test our assumptions and gather data from a larger pool of scientists working in a variety of labs about their perceptions of and experiences with sharing. We also used it as a recruiting tool, asking scientists to provide their contact information if they wanted to participate in a prototype of our service. We posted the survey on ResearchGate, a social network for scientists, and asked friends in the scientific community to share it with colleagues via Twitter and Facebook.
In the third phase, following our analysis of the survey data, we developed an interactive prototype to test usability, as well as the voice and tone of the service, and to uncover potential failure points. This helped us refine the offering and understand where we should be prescriptive in our design, and where we would be better off creating guard rails that would allow the community to self-regulate. For example, we knew we couldn’t entirely control interactions between the host and visiting scientists, but certain elements could nudge people toward ideal behaviors, like a ratings system, alerts to let visiting scientists know they should begin to wrap up their work and reminders about the lab’s rules and expectations.
At bottom, Catalyst makes sharing easier by streamlining logistics. Today, sharing is laborious and time intensive. Catalyst creates additional value in the following ways:
Social: Beyond access to lab instruments, Catalyst allows scientists to share information about themselves and their work, helping them establish credibility and trust in the community. It has the potential to create new relationships and collaborations between scientists by building awareness of who is doing what—and making that information visible and accessible to everyone.
Educational: Catalyst creates efficiencies that will speed up scientific knowledge creation and allow more American scientists to do potentially breakthrough work. It levels the playing field for less well-funded public research institutions and gives young scientists within those labs access to the instruments they need to do their best work.
Economic: Catalyst makes access to cutting edge and specialized instruments affordable. This gives grantees the ability to stretch their funding dollars—rather than buy every instrument they need—as well as more options in how they spend that money. Labs that share idle instruments can also earn funds that help offset their costs.
We envision creating a new model for funding scientific research by expanding Catalyst to include a micro-funding mechanism. Researchers could use it to seek funding for specific needs, including new instruments, or travel to labs in other regions.
Catalyst could also be a tool for recruitment and talent scouting for corporate R&D labs, as well as a way to make smarter decisions about which projects and labs they fund.
A lab manager (host) creates a lab profile and lists instruments the lab will share. He provides information about instrument capabilities and proper usage, lab rules and expectations and supplies and training offered.
A scientist (guest) creates a profile, including affiliation, areas of interest and previous research. She searches for an instrument and compares options. She selects an instrument and submits a request, along with details about her experiment. She agrees to fees and lab rules.
The host approves the visit and Catalyst sends both host and guest a confirmation. The visit is added to the host lab’s calendar to alert others in the lab.
Guest and host receive a reminder on the day of the visit and the guest is prompted to review the lab rules. The guest can view a map and walking directions via the app. The host receives a mobile alert when she arrives.
The host greets the guest and provides a tour of the lab and training if required. The guest wears the Catalyst name tag delivered in her welcome package to let others know who she is and why she’s there. She gets an alert when her time is almost up.
The guest checks out using the Catalyst app and tells the host she is leaving. Payment is handled through the service. The guest and host are prompted to review each other after the visit. The guest also reviews the lab and instrument.
At the time of our research, a service for lab sharing didn’t yet exist. Our survey gave us first-hand stories and information from 20 scientists in the US, as well as in Germany and India, about current barriers and the aspects of sharing that scientists value most. We mapped these pain points and desired benefits to our service journey to visualize where our service could intervene to overcome or circumvent these obstacles and moments of frustration.
We determined that our service must do the following:
1. Make available instruments visible to anyone.
Making instruments visible eliminates the need for prior relationships and serendipitous conversations with the right people to gain access. It also lets researchers compare a broader variety of instruments to find what they need.
2. Help scientists establish credibility and trust among their peers.
Scientist and lab profiles help Catalyst members establish credibility by sharing their affiliations, interests and work. Ratings and reviews allow hosts and guests to vouch for each other and for the quality of the instruments being offered. Because reputation is important in the scientific community, ratings are critical for nudging Catalyst members toward good behavior.
3. Manage the messy logistics.
Catalyst streamlines and automates the processes of requesting and scheduling visits and managing payment, taking the burden off of hosts and guests.
4. Improve the sharing experience by eliminating points of friction.
All labs operate differently, so Catalyst prompts host labs to clearly articulate rules and expectations, avoiding conflicts and misunderstandings. Catalyst also provides alerts and reminders, as well as tools like maps and walking directions, that to encourage people to show up and leave on time. Finally, the Catalyst welcome package, including personalized ID badge, is crafted to make members feel like they are a part of a special community. The badge clearly identifies guest scientists and invites conversation.
The ability to connect and collaborate face-to-face became a key leverage point for getting academic labs that are resource rich to participate in Catalyst. For these labs, access to cutting edge equipment is less of a need, but they can benefit from collaboration with the broader scientific community. Making this a touchstone to our service was critical to having the greatest possible impact.