Benchling raises $14.5M to help streamline collaboration among scientists

Email and a smarter notebook might be enough for handling communication for projects or experiments inside a team in a lab in some university basement. But when you have around 200 scientists working on discovering something new — say, a new drug — that communication process is going to quickly break down, and Sajith Wickramasekara says that sits somewhere between science and software.

That’s the goal for Benchling, which Wickramasekara hopes will make life easier for researchers and help simplify and speed up the process of scientific discovery. Specializing in life sciences, Benchling aims to create a comprehensive suite of tools that help researchers thoroughly log their processes and collaborate among other scientists. Benchling looks to provide a rigorous platform that can take a lot of the work away from researchers, who instead might be documenting everything in email, Excel sheets, or just in a notebook somewhere. Benchling said it has raised a $14.5 million round of financing led by Benchmark Capital, with participation from F-Prime Capital and Thrive Capital. Benchmark’s Eric Vishria is joining the company’s board of directors.

“I was always planning to go to grad school to become a scientist,” Wickramasekara said. “Obviously since I’m working here I took a kind of left turn. As someone who was doing both science and software, on the software side of things I felt like i had really great tools for working with other people, and on the science side I felt like there were really great scientific tools but not great tools for working with other people.”

At its core, Benchling is a suite of applications and tools that include ways to design experiments as well as document them during that process. Researchers can track materials they are producing, manage their physical inventory — like even tubes or containers — and helps scientists standardize and easily query information from existing or previous runs. The service seeks to capture all of this in some unified platform that a company can deploy across a whole fleet of researchers and teams. Wickramasekara says more than 100,000 scientists are using the platform.

Benchling was initially born as a sort of smart notebook for scientists and academics. While that’s where it got started — and where a lot of the learning happened — eventually the team ended up creating something a little more formalized that it could sell as an actual product. That step proved a little more challenging as academics tend to be either alone or in small teams, so they don’t necessarily need the robust tools that a product like Benchling might have when commercialized.

“The freeform nature of a lab notebook is actually sufficient [for academia],” Wickramasekara said. “In the industry, that’s where all the structure comes in. We have a team as part of our customer success and implementation, we help customers come up with the right model and complexity and adjust their business processes. At the end fo the day, all these customers do something slightly differently. But we work with probably more than 80 customers and 25 do antibody research, so we figure out all the best practices over time. We help customers think about the tradeoffs vs one data model for another.”

Benchling also offers those same employees a suite of auditing tools, which Wickramasekara would be critical as it looked to move into larger companies that are dealing with more sensitive IP. For a company looking to discover new drugs, keeping that process under tight control is important — especially when they are working with organizations like the FDA. Benchling admins get a comprehensive view of who is doing what within the system, as well as guidelines around documentation.

Part of the challenge will be catering to all the niches and needs these individual companies might have throughout their own unique experimentation processes. Each lab is different, with its own quirks, and Benchling aims to be a unified platform that covers as many scenarios as possible, even with help tuning and adjustable models. That means there is room for other tools that could tap other niches and become the one-size-fits-all. But over time and with enough data, a tool like Benchling could figure out not only the best practices for specific labs, but also ones they should use — and then cover all those bases.

VR helps us remember

Researchers at the University of Maryland have found that people remember information better if it is presented in VR vs. on a two-dimensional personal computer. This means VR education could be an improvement on tablet or device-based learning.

“This data is exciting in that it suggests that immersive environments could offer new pathways for improved outcomes in education and high-proficiency training,” said Amitabh Varshney, dean of the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at UMD.

The study was quite complex and looked at recall in forty subjects who were comfortable with computers and VR.

To test the system they created a “memory palace” where they placed various images. This sort of “spatial mnemonic encoding” is a common memory trick that allows for better recall.

“Humans have always used visual-based methods to help them remember information, whether it’s cave drawings, clay tablets, printed text and images, or video,” said lead researcher Eric Krokos. “We wanted to see if virtual reality might be the next logical step in this progression.”

From the study:

Both groups received printouts of well-known faces–including Abraham Lincoln, the Dalai Lama, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Marilyn Monroe–and familiarized themselves with the images. Next, the researchers showed the participants the faces using the memory palace format with two imaginary locations: an interior room of an ornate palace and an external view of a medieval town. Both of the study groups navigated each memory palace for five minutes. Desktop participants used a mouse to change their viewpoint, while VR users turned their heads from side to side and looked up and down.

Next, Krokos asked the users to memorize the location of each of the faces shown. Half the faces were positioned in different locations within the interior setting–Oprah Winfrey appeared at the top of a grand staircase; Stephen Hawking was a few steps down, followed by Shrek. On the ground floor, Napoleon Bonaparte’s face sat above majestic wooden table, while The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was positioned in the center of the room.

Similarly, for the medieval town setting, users viewed images that included Hillary Clinton’s face on the left side of a building, with Mickey Mouse and Batman placed at varying heights on nearby structures.

Then, the scene went blank, and after a two-minute break, each memory palace reappeared with numbered boxes where the faces had been. The research participants were then asked to recall which face had been in each location where a number was now displayed.

The key, say the researchers, was for participants to identify each face by its physical location and its relation to surrounding structures and faces–and also the location of the image relative to the user’s own body.

Desktop users could perform the feat but VR users performed it statistically better, a fascinating twist on the traditional role of VR in education. The researchers believe that VR adds a layer of reality to the experience that lets the brain build a true “memory palace” in 3D space.

“Many of the participants said the immersive ‘presence’ while using VR allowed them to focus better. This was reflected in the research results: 40 percent of the participants scored at least 10 percent higher in recall ability using VR over the desktop display,” wrote the researchers.

“This leads to the possibility that a spatial virtual memory palace–experienced in an immersive virtual environment–could enhance learning and recall by leveraging a person’s overall sense of body position, movement and acceleration,” said researcher Catherine Plaisant.

AssistENT offers an anti-snoring device you stick in your nose

If you sleep next to someone who snores you know that the endless horking and honking isn’t very fun… and it makes the snorer’s life even worse. Some students and doctors in Baltimore, Maryland, however, have created something that acts like an internal breathing strip to help you breathe better and snore less.

Called assistENT, the company uses small, reusable rings that fit into the nostril and open the septum. You insert and remove them yourself with a little pair of forceps and they can survive sneezing and, one would assume, a good, hard midnight snoooorrrrrk. Patrick Byrne and Clayton Andrews created the product and it recently won the $10,000 “Use it!” Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for best product. Other members of the team include Melissa Austin, Talia Kirschbaum, Harrison Nguyen, Theo Lee, and Eric Cao.

The team will be running a Kickstarter soon and is looking into a seed round for manufacture. The product, called N-Stent, costs 15 cents to make and will sell for about $4 a pair.

“The design is inspired by the typical cartilage grafts used in functional rhinoplasty to improve nasal breathing. In essence, the device is a tapered silicone stent consisting of two flexible beams bridging two soft pads whose shape closely follows the complex internal nasal anatomy,” said Byrne. “When deployed, one pad grips the nasal septum and the other presses against the lateral nasal wall to dilate the passage and stent it open. This dilation force comes from the two flexible beams, which bend to provide a gentle spring force while forming a lumen to accommodate airflow.”

The product fits into the nasal vestibule and to get it in and out you can either use the simple applicator or just stick it up there with your finger.

The team is excited about the possibilities, especially since this can help people without forcing them to get surgery.

“Although the mechanism for reversing nasal obstruction is straightforward, there is no viable alternative to surgery for those who struggle with nasal breathing throughout the day. Breathe Right strips lead this nighttime nasal dilator market with annual revenues of $145M, amounting to an 80% market share. However, experts estimate a $250M market opportunity for less-invasive nasal obstruction treatment,” said Byrne.

“We have heard stories from dozens who have had surgery to correct nasal obstruction – with limited success and great expense – and hundreds who are reluctant to undergo surgery in the first place and feel they have no alternative for breathing better throughout the day, at night, or during exercise. This invention has potential to radically change the standard of care for nasal obstruction and provide a convenient, sensible solution to this widespread problem,” he said.

Look for this anti-snort-hork-honnnnnking device in the next few months.

Farmdrop picks up £10M Series B

Farmdrop, the farmer-friendly online grocery platform based in the U.K., has picked up £10 million in new funding. New investors in this Series B round include LGT Impact Ventures (described as a growth equity investor that invests in businesses making a positive contribution to society), and Belltown Ventures, a renewable energy investment specialist with an interest in agricultural technology. Previous backer Atomico also followed on.

Founded by ex-city broker Ben Pugh in 2014, Farmdrop originally launched as a ‘click and collect’ service that let you order groceries online from farmer-producers to pick up at a local collection point. However, the company has since pivoted to door-to-door delivery but with the same basic idea of a marketplace that bypasses the mass supermarkets. It claims to give consumers much fresher produce, and farmer-producers a more generous share of the retail price. Large supermarkets are known for squeezing suppliers in a bid to lower prices whilst maintaining their own profits, after all.

“The fundamental problem is that the supermarket’s dominance over the last fifty years has put huge amounts of downward pressure on farmgate prices,” Pugh told me when Farmdrop raised its Series A. “In this environment, the only option for producers has been to focus on yields and durability which has led to a big depreciation in the taste and nutritional quality of homegrown foods”.

To that end, Farmdrop says it now sells over 2,000 products ranging from high-welfare meat, dairy, fish, organic fruit and veg, plus household supplies and larder items. It says that 80 percent of its fresh produce is sourced directly from 208 “sustainable farmers and independent food makers” and that since 2014 the startup has generated over £5 million in revenue for small-scale British farmers.

The new capital will be used to fund further U.K. expansion after the successful launch of a second hub in Bristol and Bath in September 2017, in addition to London. “Over the next six months Farmdrop will double the total number of households it can deliver to, initially growing in the South East but with plans for a northern hub in Manchester by end of 2019,” says the company.

More broadly, Farmdrop is tapping the rise of online grocery — even if the offline to online switch is still happening quite slowly — coupled with a growing demand for high-quality produce that comes from a more ethical/sustainable supply chain (Farmdrop also uses electric vans for the last few miles of delivery). It seems to be working, too: the startup says it is now on track to achieve £10 million in annualised revenues before the end of 2018.

Adds Niklass Zennström, Skype founder and CEO of Atomico: “What we find so compelling about Farmdrop is the way they’re using technology for good. By creating a direct route to market for farmers, Farmdrop is helping to create a healthier and more efficient supply chain. We’re proud to invest in such a fantastic team and are excited about helping them scale their innovative e-grocery platform.”