Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Citizen Science Business Model: Analyzer

At CitSci2015 I proposed a collection of business models that support, and benefit from, the work of citizen scientists and the reasons these are so important.  For the next few months I will be explaining each one in much more depth along with the current state of the market, obstacles to expanding connections to citizen science, and unexplored niches in each market.  These are needed to both help citizen scientists reap some rewards from the value they create, as well as convince firms to invest resources in developing tools to help the entire field grow.  To everyone's mutual benefit.  

This week: Analyzer.

We start with a new business opportunity for firms wishing to sell to citizen scientists: marketing sample analysis services to citizen scientists that expand their research capabilities. There are many firms that already have the equipment, infrastructure, and staff expertise to offer this at a competitive rate.  They just need help identifying the citizen science market and deciding how to best package those services.

As background, a popular way researchers utilize citizen scientists is as field technicians who collects and analyze samples of whatever the researcher is interested in. Typically these projects require frequent collections from sites that cover a wide area.  This is very expensive for the scientists or professional technicians to handle by themselves.  But citizen scientists living close to those areas can much more easily access those sample sites.  Not only is it less difficult and less expensive for those volunteers to do the research, they also don't charge nearly as much (if at all) for their time.  All providing a large cost savings to the researchers.

There are many examples. In California, citizen scientists help local water boards ensure the quality of water available for drinking.  In States like Pennsylvania and West Virginia, water is sampled for tracking pollution from drilling or agriculture, and Maryland uses it to ensure the health of local waterways (such as the Chesapeake Bay Watershed) to protect native species.  And people from across the country are sending in swabs of their homes and bodies to identify micro-organisms living in the world with them. 

Participants in those types of programs are often considered the "Contributory" or "Collector" type of citizen scientist.  The defining common element is that while they collect the data, it is then sent to a central location to be combined with data from other collectors, and then analyzed independently by the research team.  But there are also smaller-scale examples where the citizen scientist acts as more of an independent researcher performing those tasks themselves on projects of their own design.

Taking on your own research project, especially one based on field studies and sample collection, can be difficult.  Most are willing to dedicate the time to collecting and either already have, or are happy to learn, the scientific basis for the work.  The difficult piece comes with actual sample testing.

While citizen scientists currently rely on a handful of different sources for analysis these are not optimal solutions.  Some use portable sensor devices, including some that can be attached to smartphones (such as SensorDrone), but those can't always be calibrated and do not provide scientifically reliable results.  Others use testing kits available from local retailers (such as home water quality kits sold at a local Home Depot), but these have many problems as well:

  1. They don't provide scientifically reliable results.  This can be because the sample preparation is not standard or because the supplier cannot connect the results to calibrated equipment or accepted industry/regulatory standards.
  2. The expense of testing limits the number of samples.  This increases statistical fluctuations, hinders discovery of procedural flaws in the testing process, and limits reproducibilty.
  3. They only offer tests on a limited number of compounds.  Although these may be bundled together for convenience sake, this still leaves large holes in the available options.  It could be that some tests are too generic, such as only providing "total organic molecules" instead of the amount of a specific compound (like benzene) in a sample.  Or, since citizen science is about discovery, they may not test for the novel or rare compound that happens to be of interest to the researcher.
  4. They only offer tests at a limited number of sensitivities.  This can be because the testing lab has limited equipment or does not offer the more sensitive equipment to retail customers.  It could also be that they only test in a certain range because it is the typical "actionable range", but is not what the citizen scientist requires (for example, testing water for a substance to the range where the water is considered "safe to drink" but not any further, though the researcher is looking for trace amounts for other reasons).

Industrial firms and government agencies solve this problem by using one of the many commercial testing services available to organizational users (such as Lancaster Laboratories). Unfortunately these companies don't offer their services to citizen scientists.  But why?  Although there are some reasons listed below none are insurmountable.

  1. Legal and Regulatory Concerns: There has always been an odd relationship between independent scientists and chemical firms.  Whether manufacturing or analyzing chemicals, it has always been difficult for independent scientists to have these firms accept their business. While there are some economic reasons, there are also concerns about how those services would be used.  Many firms fear being tangled up in terrorism issues or illicit drug manufacturing.  Since passage of the USA PATRIOT Act and the rise of home methamphetamine labs this is somewhat understandable.  In fact, I used to work for a chemical firm that had these exact concerns.  But chemical testing is different.  You know that samples are coming in to you, and you are only selling information (not products).  You can also quickly tell if the analysis is for something innocuous or if it is connected to illegal activity. Sadly fear can still override the market, and nobody wants to take that risk while also trying to build a new market.  But (as we'll continue seeing) there is a sizable market worth building and a profitable business to be built.
  2. Economies of Scale (Testing): Custom services of any type can be very expensive to sell; that's as true for picture framing and furniture making as it is for sample analysis.  Just the time spent setting up equipment can take up most of the cost for custom services when you don't have an "Economy of Scale"  But just because companies are selling to citizen scientists, who are themselves working on individual projects, does not mean that everything must be custom. There are likely many people requiring similar testing services even if the specifics are slightly different.   For example, anyone analyzing water quality of any type must be following standard protocols developed by the EPA and industry groups. There is no re-inventing the wheel here and the same tests citizen scientists would request would be the same ones a waste-water treatment plant might also order.  Although the scale for any individual request is small, lumping them in with tests for other clients, or for other groups of citizen scientists, may help greatly in creating economies of scale and making the service price-competitive. That would cover the majority of customers and help build a client base that would also make more custom research more economically feasible.
  3. Economies of Scale (Sales and Advertising): Citizen scientists are a diverse group with many interests and located in a variety of places.  This makes finding, advertising, and selling to them very difficult.  Much like with manufacturing and testing, developing economies of scale for the sales function is also important. But I think that difficulty is a myth when it comes to citizen science.  Many citizen science projects involve thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of people.  For web-based projects they can all be reached through a single web portal.  For projects that are national in scope there are usually government agencies or national non-profits running them, and who can help with advertising if it will benefit the participants.  Similarly, local projects are often connected to larger groups (for example, local bird projects may connect to the National Audobon Society), providing another central advertising location. There are also citizen science support sites such as the Citizen Science Association, SciStarter, and even my OpenScientist web site that could be convinced to hep if shown the value proposition. All that on top of the standard print publications (such as Discover Magazine of National Geographic) that accept advertising targeted a many of the same people who are also interested in citizen science.

Now that it's established that businesses utilizing the "Analyzer" model can succeed, what is the actual market they should target?  There are a few ideas for that:

  1. Soil and Water Testing: Pollution testing often focuses on the methods for conveying that pollution into humans, either through the water we drink or the soil that grows our food. Citizen Science projects may be monitoring individual sites over a long period of time to track existing problems, or may be investigating multiple sites trying to find where problems occur.  For soil, citizen scientists may start testing local sites suspected of being polluted or which once hosted potentially-polluting activities.  There are thousands of these sites around the country (if not in each state) as well as bodies of water impacting the health of local communities.  
  2. DNA Sequencing: A few firms such as uBiome and 23andMe already compete in this space but looking at different types of genetic material.  For 23andMe they take human skin samples and test for various genetic traits carried by the customer.  For uBiome, they also collect human samples but look for bacterial DNA as a way to identify the microorganisms hosted by each person.  Both sell kits to collect the data and provide back the test results.  Both then go a step further, using composite results from all users and selling it to pharmaceutical firms to help identify new drug targets or diagnostic tests.  Selling the kits keeps them in business and pays the bills, while selling the data let's them take bigger risks attempting to earn big money from potential health discoveries.  It's a strategy that can be extended to other types of scientific analysis as well.
  3. Food Testing: The quality and safety of food is a prime concern for many people and can be the source of many interesting citizen science projects.  A few examples include testing raw foods for bacterial contamination, especially comparing producers or cuts of meat.  Testing those same foods for pesticide residues or other concerns of the organic food movement are additional opportunities for citizen scientists and services that can help with the analyses.  There are also opportunities in testing the fish sold at local markets and restaurants, ensuring that what is sold as salmon is actually salmon and not a pink-tinted replacement (companies like SeafoodID are already attempting this in some markets).

To sum it all up, there is a large market of citizen scientists who are ready to expand their research but don't have access to all the analysis tools they need.  Fortunately there are companies with the right equipment and know-how to perform those services.  They just need to overcome a few obstacles and start marketing their services correctly.  And once they do, a whole new set of sales opportunities will open up while citizen scientists  greatly increase the knowledge they bring to the world.  A win-win situation for us all.


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