A college math major isn’t the most likely candidate to help establish a growing and successful suite of products supporting life science research. And hearing him describe it, the twisted path from math to biology start-up seems like an adventurous hike up a mountain. In the early days of millennium, Lenny Teytleman was a math major at Columbia with a serious disdain for biology. His path began to warp in his final year of college. While picking up a CompSci minor on the side, he “accidentally took a computational biology class,” and realized…“Oh crap! Biology is what I want to do!” And so Lenny entered grad school in Berkeley for a Computational and Experimental Biology degree. He spent 6 years learning to biology side of life – learning how to do experiments, and how not to do experiments. He fell in love with the lifestyle – “I love teaching, I love research” – and so decided to remain in academia and started pursuing a post-doc at MIT.
His pursuit derailed the day before his eldest daughter’s birthday. While shopping for party supplies on January 7, 2012, Lenny’s phone rang. His friend Alexei a start-up’s CTO, said 10 words that diverted Lenny’s path once again: “Do you think we can build an app for Biology?”
Lenny’s initial idea was simple protocol app: “It would be nice if there was a recipe checklist as I am going through an experiment that I could scan down the steps – like ‘now take the cells and spin them.’ And, if I change anything, I could record it right there and save it.’ And the simple idea grew. Lenny realized that “if it did gain traction, and a lot of scientists started using this, we would have a chance to create a central protocol repository that is up-to-date, crowd sourced. And, all the changes, corrections, optimizations to these protocols, to these recipes would then be reflected.”
With these ideas Lenny and Alexei launched ZappyLab – a venture producing mobile apps for life scientists. Lenny described the following year as incredible – “the next year as I was doing research by day, and ZappyLab by night, was the most productive year of my post-Doc, I got more publications…” Yet he quickly reached another turning point – he realized that “either I have to choose the academic, or this track. That was one of the hardest decisions I had to make in my life.”
Last spring, Lenny wrapped up his post-doc then moved back to Berkeley to focus on ZappyLab - provider of mobile and web applications for scientists. Nearly a year later, ZappyLab now offers a suite of Bench Tools including PubChase.
PubChase was created for 2 reasons: (1) The massive amount of publications make it difficult for scientists to stay on top of recent research progress and (2) Increasingly new discoveries are the fruits of international multi-disciplinary efforts.
Until PubChase, Lenny explains, “no one could predict what publications that come out are relevant to you”. Keyword searches return tons of papers, and not necessarily the one’s that you need. The idea of PubChase was to make newly published research “discoverable based on your library, no matter where it is published.”
Looking forward into the not-too-distant future, ZappyLab aspires to add a unique layer to PubChase: To enable articles to be annotated and commented on by the original author and the rest of community.
The idea is compelling. Not only could the author add minor comments or clarifications to the article, but also as Lenny explains:
“What I want is not a place where you can rip apart other people’s work, but a place where the scientist can come in and tell her story, of why she spent the six years on this project. How she figured it out. How she did the discovery. What it was like to publish it right. Because we spend – as a student you can spend six years doing a research project. You get a three-page paper at the end that is very high profile, but it is three pages after six years, right.”
They’ve already started in a modest way with PubChase’s “Author Stories” blog, with the ultimate aim of turning PubChase into “Tumblr for Scientists”.
Lenny shared many other compelling ideas and plans that he and PubChase founder Matt Davis are working on – it’s worth occasionally checking their site to see what’s new.
Returning to his circuitous professional path, Lenny is convinced that the greatest innovations and ideas come from multi-disciplinary collaborations, often in the most unexpected places – even in a party supply store. So if you’re reading this and inspired by Lenny’s story, his parting advice is, simply “When you go out, do not just go out with scientists. When you go on a hike, try to make sure that there are other people there.”
Do you have similar science start-up success stories to share? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!