Reagents – including antibodies – are used in myriad ways by almost everyone who works with living organisms in a lab. From chemists and chemical engineers to product biologists and life scientists in areas like cancer research or immunology, researchers rely on them when devising and developing new treatments.
Reagents don't come cheap
‘I’m a cell biologist, and we buy lots of reagents,’ says Dr Andrew Chalmers, who’s a senior lecturer in biological science here at the University of Bath. ‘A good analogy is to think of them as ingredients in a recipe except instead of making a sauce or cake, we add a series of reagents to a test tube and mix up a chemical formula to carry out our experiment. However, countless antibodies are available – with millions of potential combinations and applications – and the problem, historically, is that we can’t know if they’ll be successful until we try them.’
Experimenting with reagents has always been an expensive business because, depending on the project’s complexity, it can take days, weeks or more and inevitably demands numerous trials and errors. Researchers have had to pay around £300 to £400 for each tube of antibody, despite having no idea if it’s going to work.
With countless types of reagent listed in product catalogues, how could life scientists decide which is right for their project? The simple answer, explains Andrew, is they scanned the internet for positive citations from people who have already used them.
Addressing the challenge
Although there’s never a guarantee, antibodies that have been cited as proven in academic papers are perceived as more trustworthy and less risky. However, since information on effective reagents wasn’t shared, numerous researchers in labs all over the world were carrying out similar searches.
‘They were all digging around to find exactly the same information!’ Andrew says. ‘I thought this was ridiculous and, after some thinking, decided to build a web-based platform to aggregate this data, allowing researchers in life science and affiliated fields to narrow down their search to reagents that had been cited in an appropriate context.
‘Nobody had thought about doing it before and I set about with great enthusiasm – and quite a bit of naivety! I thought there might be about 100,000 antibodies to list, if we were lucky, but soon discovered I’d underestimated.'
'Still, I was confident that it would plateau at about a million as we were limiting results to those with third-party citations. But we kept finding more, and then more again, and it turns out that there are nearly four million reagents!’
Funding a trial
The University initially received a small amount of money toward the project from the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Council), and a small subset was awarded to support a project of commercial value. However, the £10,000 allowed Andrew to launch a prototype. ’We were very pleased that Bath supported a project like this, which wasn’t patented yet could provide a great new tool for researchers,’ he says.
The prototype web platform, called 'CiteAb' was designed from the outset for external use by other academics or pharmaceutical companies. As well as being able to search for relevant information and citations, users could use links to specialist suppliers, compare similar products and prices and buy their chosen reagents.
It can cost billions to put new drugs through trials, and getting the right reagent can be critical to success. CiteAb collates citations for users so they can save time and pick winners first time. This doesn’t mean that reagents without citations won’t be effective - there are discoveries to be made and some might be better – but Andrew is confident that it’s the best guidance available.
The trial which allowed the initial development of CiteAb demonstrated that there was significant demand in the life science sector for a tool that streamlined the purchase of reagents.
Navigating a digital world
‘I knew nothing about building websites or databases – I’m a biologist! – but luckily there’s a cluster of local web companies nearby,’ says Andrew. ‘We chose Storm Consultancy, an agency based in Bath started by two University of Bath graduates, and they’ve been fantastic. I briefed them with a low estimate of the numbers of entries we anticipated entering into the reagents’ database, and they just expanded it as the job got bigger.
‘We built a prototype in 2012, launched it in early 2013 and spun it out as a company in 2014, with Storm partnering with the University. The Research & Innovation Services RIS team at Bath were awesome in getting the product out of the door. They were receptive to an idea that was different, and helped with making the University a shareholder, too, in the spin-out.
‘So far, we’ve had around 700,000 users, with researchers from more than 2,000 universities worldwide logging on, including Oxford, Cambridge and Ivy league ones – and Bath, of course! The big pharmaceutical companies are using it too, as well as cancer research organisations, Alzheimer’s research institutes, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US, and many other hubs of life science work.’
Creating a sustainable company
CiteAb was set up with a different model to traditional sales sites in the industry because it doesn't just sell products, but information. The team at CiteAb carries out data mining across the whole reagent marketplace to locate all relevant citations, ensuring they offer users the most up-to-date data. Meanwhile, their suppliers can measure their own performance, prioritise their pipeline for new reagent products and target their marketing to researchers more efficiently.
Effectively, Andrew’s idea has transformed into a comprehensive quantitative guide to the entire reagent market, which is continually updated and so gets better and better. The modestly priced spin-out currently supplies market data to around 15 of the top 20 reagent sellers – from whom it makes a significant profit. However, the main users of the platform are researchers, for whom he originally designed the service, and they get the service free of charge.
‘It’s hard to monetise subscription services and, besides, I felt we’d help far fewer people if we’d gone down that route,’ says Andrew. ‘It’s brilliant to have built something that helps researchers do excellent work all over the world. We didn’t do it in an entirely altruistic way, because we always saw its commercial potential, but our main mission was to help drive forward research and to support researchers, and our business model allows us to do this. Our turnover was £400K last year, about a quarter of which was profit, despite minimal initial investment. We bootstrapped it!’
CiteAb hasn't needed to advertise. Instead, users have been happy to recommend and promote CiteAb, and the company regularly blogs and uses its social media channels to reach suppliers of reagents around the world. Most customers have been alerted to the site by word of mouth, from scientist to scientist, but user case studies published on the site are optimised for Google searches about reagents and antibodies, and Andrew says people like reading them because the content is genuinely interesting.
Expanding into new markets
Andrew initially came up with the name for CiteAb by combining part of the word ‘citation’ and the accepted abbreviation of ‘antibody’: Ab. However, the company’s expanding fast and now collects and disseminates information on biochemicals, instruments and kits, too.
The business continues to gather more citations, customers and momentum and Andrew believes its current success is the tip of the iceberg. ‘We can gather data on anything important enough to be cited in a paper, and there are no restrictions,’ he says. ‘It’s an exciting time!’