After Brandon Aubie earned his PhD at McMaster University, he joined the university’s Biointerfaces Institute, which opened in 2013 with $22 million in funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, the provincial government and industry partners. “We had tons and tons of really cool equipment that we figured everybody would want to use,” he recalls. “But we had a lot of trouble getting people to come in to our facility to use it.” The reason, he says, is that few people outside of the institute knew the equipment existed.
So, he and some colleagues created a website that listed all the equipment – fluorescence microscopes, spectrometers, centrifuges, and so on – and who to contact if an outside researcher wished to use it. “We then thought, why doesn’t this type of system exist elsewhere?” he says.
In fact, it does. In the U.K., for example, there is a service called equipment.data, created to promote the use of higher-education research equipment more efficiently and to stimulate collaboration. In the U.S., there is a similar platform for the biomedical sciences called eagle-i funded by a National Institutes of Health subsidiary. But, in Canada, there was nothing.
With this in mind, Dr. Aubie – along with John Brennan and Fred Capretta, directors of the Biointerfaces Institute – founded a spin-off company this summer called QReserve Inc., with Dr. Aubie as the company CEO. The QReserve platform, he explains, works essentially as a search engine for research equipment. Researchers or their graduate students can use the online platform to list their equipment and where they’re located. Then, other researchers searching for equipment can contact that laboratory to inquire about using it or collaborating.
“If you want a library book it’s really easy to find because it’s catalogued and the catalogue is kept up to date,” says Dr. Aubie. “We’re trying to take this library concept and apply it to laboratory equipment.” The end result is “people won’t be spending taxpayers’ money to buy a $500,000 microscope that they could use for free elsewhere on campus. And that happens so often already, it’s depressing,” he says. “A microscope shouldn’t be harder to access than a library book.”
The priority for QReserve now is to encourage research labs from across the country to join in. “We’re in the bootstrapping phase right now trying to populate it with equipment and users,” says Dr. Aubie. As of late September, the company had 16 facilities at five institutions participating. Users can list their equipment for free, but QReserve is also seeking university partners who would pay an annual subscription fee. This would allow the universities to integrate the service with their institutional websites and to access a “campus ambassador” program to help them set up the service and to catalogue their inventory.
“When a campus decides it wants to participate, we’ll help them hire grad students on campus whose job will be to go to the smaller labs, talk to faculty, and put together a list of what they have. … What we want to know is what piece of equipment is sitting in a corner gathering dust that could be used by somebody else.” Eventually, Dr. Aubie anticipates the service could be used to actually buy and sell equipment, like “an eBay of lab equipment.” As well, the platform can be used to list research services and experts, in addition to equipment.