Ali

Ali Afshar (Left) Ignacio Willats (Right)

We are very excited to bring you a new interview for our #FoundersFriday blog series! If you’ve missed our previous posts, Founders Friday is a platform in which we interview the founders of different businesses, asking them to share their advice for others and their perspective on the industry as a whole.

For this edition we have interviewed Ali Afshar and Ignacio Willats, founders of HackScience. HackScience’s platform enables scientists to find and create affordable lab automation tools. These tools are built by both HackScience and the community. Users can also use HackScience’s powerful software to easily control and monitor these tools remotely, without needing to code. HackScience was one of three of our most recent awardees of our prestigious Catalyst Grant. Ali featured on The Digital Science Podcast recently to talk about the Catalyst Grant.

Steve Scott, Director of Portfolio Development at Digital Science adds:

“HackScience impressed us during the Catalyst Grant process with their clear passion to help scientists build bespoke solutions to meet their exact research needs, at a fraction of the cost normally required. As research budgets are increasingly squeezed, their service is more valuable than ever.”

Tell me about your past – what did you both do before entering the world of technology?

Ali: During my Physics undergraduate degree at University College London, I became frustrated with making notes on paper and founded a hardware startup building a digital device called “Vellum” to replace paper – the aim was to replace paper in both feel for writing and reading experience (essentially an A4 E-Ink device with a textured screen). This was my first major foray into building hardware.

At around the same time, I began hacking equipment while in the lab to allow me new functionalities such as the ability to heat and cool samples during measurements in an expensive time-resolved photon counting machine!

Ignacio: I was in the first year of an Economics degree at Southampton when House music started to make a comeback! I started selling tickets to take advantage of the plethora of new House DJs performing in Southhampton and soon realised there was an opportunity to promote events and sell tickets online.  One night, I stayed up late and built a site called Sotonight – we grew to 30,000 site visits a month and earned ourselves some pocket money by becoming the go-to site for event listings in Hampshire.

How did you both meet?

I was at a crossroads in my entrepreneurial journey. To seriously manufacture “Vellum” I would have to head to China and I decided that it would be too risky and tough to keep the cost of the screen down in order to compete with the iPad! Instead, I began a PhD in Plastic Electronics at Imperial College, aiming to build cheap inorganic solar cells.

At the same time, Ignacio had decided to head to Imperial College to pursue a Business Analytics Masters degree.

We’re both entrepreneurial in spirit, therefore it was no coincidence that we both responded to an open call inviting people to help run the student arm of Imperial Innovations, then known as Imperial Create Lab. It was here that we met and decided to run a lab automation hackathon called “HackScience” in order to bring together scientists and engineers at Imperial – two groups at a university that don’t regularly mix. We started to address a serious problem in academic research – scientific research is incredibly slow due to the lack of automation.

Why did you decide to create HackScience?

At the end of the original hackathon, everyone in the room was blown away! Machines had been built for £100-200 to automate processes that were taking up to three hours a day for researchers to do by hand! In other cases, equipment that usually costs £10000+ had been built for a similarly low price.

At that point, we could see the impact affordable automation could have on scientific research and we knew we were onto something! We founded the company shortly after and spent the next few months meeting a lot of potential customers and users as a way of doing customer development.

Is gaining access to facilities found in a laboratory difficult?

At university, this is very easy, and then becomes very hard as a startup! A lot of biotech companies we’ve met are struggling with this. They often explore other options such as purchasing affordable equipment, or getting cheaper custom equipment made so they can do experiments in-house.

It’s also interesting to see how the new generation of “bio-hackers” (amateur enthusiasts building things with biology, who are often not scientists by training) are building a lot of their own equipment to get around the lack of lab access.

Would affordable laboratories mean more discoveries?

Absolutely – I recently heard that the entire African continent only contributes 1-2% of the world’s scientific knowledge due to the lack of funding for labs. Just imagine how much faster science would move forward if all those people had better facilities and could contribute more!

It’s not just affordability too – we want scientists to have access to affordable automation so that they can produce better data faster!

Similarly with biotech startups: at HackScience, we want to get them to the point where setting up a biotech company is as cheap as setting up a software company. At that point, we’d see some truly amazing innovations worldwide!

If you could go back in time and give your pre-startup self one piece of advice, what would it be and why?

User test as early as possible! At HackScience, we put a strong emphasis on user testing at all stages in our prototyping, but, I feel even we could have started testing earlier. Often, you build out features in a product to get it ready for testing and then during the test you realise that those features weren’t even needed for the test to be carried out – the result, a loss of time.

User testing sooner means validated learning sooner!

How can you envision the landscape you work in changing?

We envisage that, with our help, a lot more research in labs will be automated. This would save scientists huge amounts of time to think up novel experiments and analyse data, as well as making reproducibility of research – currently a huge problem – much easier.

The first process we’re automating is growing cells – biologists can spend hours every day feeding their cells. Our tool, called “Cell-Feed” is open for sign-ups right now (hackscience.io/cell-feed/) – we think it’s going to save biologists a huge amount of time and sanity. We’re proud to be at the forefront of a movement aiming to disrupt the lab and we look forward to developing our company and helping researchers around the world!