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BioKM Interview: Online Lab Management | BenchFly
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BioKM Interview: Online Lab Management

BioKM Founder Jonathan GrossManaging experiments, data and projects can be a challenge.  Luckily for us, people like Jonathan Gross, Founder of BioKM are working on solutions to solve these exact problems.  We caught up with Jonathan to find out why he started the online lab management service, what they’re working on next and where he sees research 10 years from now.

To see if BioKM’s service is right for you and your lab, check out their site. They’ve recently added a free version of the service, which makes it easy to get started.

You started out as a programmer before going to back to school in biotechnology- what drove your decision to pursue the sciences?

I finished my undergraduate studies in 2003, at the time the first “bubble” burst, could not get a job as a programmer and was very frustrated by that fact. In my studies I took an optional course “Intro to BioTechnology” By Prof. Shy Arkin, who is now the VP of research of the Hebrew University at Jerusalem.  His opening statement for that class was “What are you guys doing here? Obviously no one here is going to do research.”  He was actually teasing us- stating that everyone should know at least a bit of biology and that biotech is going to affect much of our lives.  Deep inside I was both offended and triggered. So I finished my studies and decided to pursue a scientific career.  After one year of complementary studies I started my Masters at the lab of Prof. Zach Adam.

Describe your previous experiences in the lab.

Though I cannot exactly state my thesis topics due to constraints of IP, I was trying to manipulate Rubisco, the Large subunit (rbcL) actually.  My thesis involved new methods of plastid transformation, site directed mutagenesis and lots of high hopes. I learned a lot. I was sent

twice to the lab of Prof. Ralph Bock and with the great assistance of Post Doc Stephanie Ruf and few other lab members I got my plasmids into tissue culture.  This was a long shot since manipulating rbcL is not easily achieved (it’s one of the most conserved proteins nature has to offer). We did spend few months on computer models trying to spot the most logical location. It didn’t work. I got plants that grew only on growth medium (with sugar in it), not demonstrating any photosynthesis.

How did those experiences influence your career path?

Obviously without my experience in the lab I would not have been able to start BioData and work on BioKM.  I truly think that my three years in the lab taught me a lot and gave me the tools I needed. Prof. Adam has a strict (in the good way) scientific method and attitude towards science. It was a great time. I was always drawn back to the computer though.

How was the idea for BioKM born?

I was always looking for better ways to organize my own research activities, to keep things connected and to properly document my work (OneNote, TiddlyWiki, Curio).  At the time, I found by chance (or by buzz) a new programming framework Ruby On Rails and after learning that it was extracted from actual working apps, I decided to check it out (37Signals). I started playing with the idea of having a research-oriented app. I was approached by Dr. Menachem Moshelion and we started talking about his needs as a young PI opening a lab.  We started with a simple catalog module for inventory management, saving the lab money on redundant purchases. From there, a few more researchers started to be interested and eventually I understood there are more functionalities that a lab could use to operate more efficiently.

At what point did you decide to pursue BioKM full-time? Was it a difficult decision?

BioData was formally started after I graduated.  By that time we had few labs working with a beta service and actually doing the QA for our small operation, I was not very happy with it but that’s the way it was.  I could not support the company so I had started to work as a ruby team leader for Kontera. I was very happy with the technical challenges I had to meet but not with the actual work I was doing.  After 7 months I decided to quit.  It was not a hard decision since I understood that my passion is BioKM.  The hard part was giving up a car and good salary.

How has the company/product evolved since it’s inception?

BioKM was created for researchers.  We spent almost two years talking, tweaking, adding, removing and manipulating BioKM before opening it to the “public” so most of the ideas came from the bench.  We are still open to suggestions and share the same attitude that it should serve scientists.

What have been some of the biggest successes and hurdles with implementing the software?

Software is not the issue, I mean in the technical aspect.  Creating something that people find useful and work with is the real challenge.  Now the challenge is bringing our fresh attitude to the mass market.

What is main goal for the BioKM service?

The goal is simple- making research manageable and making lab life simpler, happier and fun.

Where would you like to see the service in five years?

One of the main things that we are now working on and will take time is building a platform for collaboration on top of BioKM, so you can select the parts of your research that the public, or selected researchers, can see and use.

I think that the fact we are agile and able to quickly change will also make BioKM more attractive to some labs.  There is much to be done and we’ve got great ideas.

Describe your vision for the way research takes place in labs ten years from now.

Ha, I’m glad you asked.  Much more technology in the lab- let this be RFiD tags for tubes and storage or robotics that work for you. I had a chance to sit with Dr. Shai Kaplan from RobioTec and he had some great ideas on robotics- check out their colony picker video.  I think we will see a change in the type of research questions being asked- simply because the right set of

tools to answer them will be available.  More high-throughput studies, also because it would be easier to get grants for large-scale studies then to get funded on a one-dimensional basic study (this is not necessarily a good thing).

In academics, I think that new fresh minds will understand the value in paired research- building teams of two – three people to work together on the same question.

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