Sometimes hidden costs do a very bad job of hiding. Sometimes they simply give themselves up, but nobody bothers to tag them. They are ignored. They run around with impunity. They begin to be considered normal and eventually become invisible.
Neglect breeds inefficiency in any workplace. But Adam Regelmann was astonished by the manifestation of this phenomenon in academic laboratories, where equipment and chemicals are purchased, time slots on instruments are assigned, and equipment is moved from lab to lab as if computers to keep track of it all had not been invented.
Among the consequences of such poor management are duplicate ordering, failed experiments resulting from a lack of ordering, orders for the wrong chemicals, and a lack of timely access to equipment (even though the researcher signed up for time last week on that piece of paper taped to the door).
“I couldn’t believe that in my 10 years of doing research in academic institutions, a standard way of managing a lab hadn’t been developed,” Regelmann says. So five years ago, as a physician doing a residency at Washington University in St. Louis, he decided to take matters into his own hands. Collaborating with Jayant Kulkarni, a friend from Columbia University, where Regelmann received his M.D./Ph.D., he developed an online lab management platform and a small business to market it to academic laboratories and comparably sized commercial labs.
Quartzy—the firm’s name is taken from the highest-scoring first word possible in the game of Scrabble—won a business plan competition at Washington University in 2010. It was accepted into Y Combinator, a Silicon Valley business incubator, in 2011, where it received more than $5 million in venture funding. The firm’s eponymous product
Quartzy allows researchers to place order requests, note where equipment is stored or has been taken to, document standard procedures, and schedule time on instruments. Quartzy is not designed as a platform on which to place orders; instead it facilitates compilation of requests so that orders can be more easily and efficiently made. Regelmann says use of the software can cut lab spending by up to 10% by eliminating duplicate ordering alone.
One of the first lessons the partners learned is that lab managers have an interest in using a tool such as Quartzy but little interest in paying for it. “We realized pretty quickly that we would have to offer it for free,” Regelmann says.
The company pursues partnerships with suppliers who pay to have their catalogs hosted on the Quartzy website. According to Regelmann, vendors that have linked their catalogs to Quartzy have seen the benefits of increased lab manager awareness of their products. The company has deals with about 20 vendors, including EMD Millipore, Qiagen, and New England Biolabs.
Arthur Uhimov, an administrator at Columbia University who manages several labs, had experience with business management software called QuickBooks from a previous job with a wholesale jeweler. He recognized the need for something comparable at the university’s research labs and found out about Quartzy. “There are some other tools out there,” he says, “but Quartzy is free.”
Uhimov says the product offers a logical means of keeping track of orders and equipment. He and other users say they regularly contact Regelmann to report glitches and suggest adaptations; they have been pleased with the company’s responsiveness. “I needed to attach pdf confirmations of orders I placed,” Uhimov says. “I called, and one day later that was a feature available.”
Regelmann says Quartzy’s current application modules are fully functional, but he has a to-do list of new applications to develop. For example, although the software is Web browser compatible, it does not have a mobile app, which many users have requested. “There are a few things in the pipeline, such as communication with electronic laboratory notebooks,” Regelmann says.
The mismanaged state of affairs in academic labs mixed with the increase in digital equipment for research presents many product development opportunities, according to Regelmann. “This is an eclectic area where there is a lot of room for improvement and increased efficiency,” he says. Right now, the company is focused on making Quartzy easy to use so researchers have more time to do research.