Labstep: Building A Start-Up To Help The Research Community

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Author: Ruth Sang Jones Edited by: Burcu Anil Kirmizitas

Our speaker Jake completed a DPhil at Oxford and transitioned from academia to industry by working for commercial R&D. Through his experience in both areas, he noticed that result reproducibility was a problem at the forefront of scientific research. To tackle this issue, Jake, alongside a fellow Oxford DPhil student, honed in on the idea of a virtual lab book tool. In their spare time, Labstep was born. Its users can add research progress as posts on a personal timeline, which has collaborative potential as this live feed can be shared with colleagues or even with the wider scientific community. Furthermore, experimental protocols can be uploaded, shared and modified, with all changes tracked along the timeline. This extra level of recording methods allows for more detailed reproduction of protocols and hence more result reproducibility. Both co-founders' mission, and one that is still at the core of the company, is for the Labstep tool to be widely accessible to all researchers. This sets them apart from other research tools, which can be time-consuming and hindering.

Labstep experienced a very organic initial growth stage. Starting with a test group of 50 undergraduate students that used the tool for their lab practicals, Labstep quickly spread to +100 Universities in the UK and the US. After securing pre-seed round funding, the growing team moved to London, where the investment infrastructure for software development is more mature than in Oxford. Jake emphasised that the funding journey involved a steep learning curve and more than often distracted them from developing the tool. But Jake did have several pieces of advice for start-ups new to the process of securing funding. Importantly, he recommended that teams focus on progress and execution of ideas, which is more impressive to investors than just any ‘good’ idea. The aphorism given was ‘Investors invest in lines and not dots’. Jake also underlined the importance of being persuasive and articulate in pitches, which is a consideration for personnel selection in the early stages of team building. And in terms of pitching content, this must be tailored to the category of investor - are they looking for stability in revenue or are they looking for a big vision?

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As a strategy for increasing the possibility of acquiring investment, Jake stressed that getting referrals was key. It is important to network and find the right people who can give warm introductions to potential investors, who will certainly be more attentive under such a scenario. For Labstep, a top-down referral strategy was adopted, whereby larger investment firms recommended the start-up to early stage investors. This helped Labstep to secure £500k in March of 2017, now used to employ a full-time team.

Now present in more than 490 university communities, Labstep is looking to the future by considering new business models that may involve licence fees for industry users as well as partnerships with lab reagent providers or even publishers.

During his concluding remarks, Jake lauded the Oxford ecosystem as having a remarkable human resource potential. Those interested in the start-up industry should fully immerse themselves in the entrepreneurial scene, which includes communities such as the SIU. Since his starting stages, the Oxford ecosystem has advanced and he believes that more support and opportunities are available for those ready to make a positive impact with their business ideas.