We all get the gist of crowdsourcing challenges that populate sites like InnoCentive and OpenIDEO — here’s a problem, let’s pose it to as many different minds as we can to find the best possible solutions.
But a site just launched by four Ph.D. students in England is hoping to spark technology transfer by essentially flipping that model, instead providing a home for solutions that have yet to find their problems.
Marblar.com is a place where university technology transfer offices can share their abandoned or dormant scientific discoveries, and where budding scientists can go to collaborate and compete to come up with the best application of the technology, earning virtual points and cash prizes in the process.
It was founded on the idea that a lot of what’s invented and even patented at universities gets left on the shelf because it’s not matched with the right commercial opportunity (that’s an idea we’ve heard a lot lately). So it puts that responsibility in the hands of the masses.
“Technology transfer offices just don’t have the bandwidth and the niche expertise they need for a lot of technologies to get off the ground,” said Gabriel Mecklenburg, one of Marblar’s co-founders. “They’re saying they’re completely overwhelmed.”
Mecklenburg said Marblar is working with several universities including Imperial College London, Oxford University and Cambridge University, along with some private companies and government organizations in the UK to find this dormant technology. Its inventors then work with Marblar to create a challenge page on the site, where he or she can post videos and text describing the technology and participate in discussion with the solvers, or Marblars.
“Patents aren’t easy to read or understand, so a big part of what we do is break down the technology to a level where a biologist can understand what a physicist has done,” Mecklenburg said. “[Users] don’t need to understand the underlying workings of the technology — they just need to understand what it can do.”
The first few weeks of the challenge are essentially brainstorming. Members post public replies to the technology and others follow up with feedback, questions and votes on ideas. There’s also an element of gaming weaved in — the top ideas are rewarded with points on the site (marbles), and some may receive prize money from a challenge’s sponsor. Members also receive points for voting and commenting on other people’s ideas.
On the last week of the challenge, a short list of the best ideas is determined by votes, and the inventor selects a winner who will get the cash prize. From there, the inventor can do what he wants with the idea.
So who are these “Marblars,” who are willing to essentially give up their ideas for free, with the hope that they might turn into more? Mecklenburg said the founders have been strategically targeting scientists from around the world. “Any crowdsourcing venture rises and falls with the quality of the crowd,” he said. “A lot of the people that we’re finding typically tend to be young scientists from places like Cambridge or MIT. Ph.D. and post-doc level are the people who would be most excited about this.”
In a beta test earlier this year, the Marblar team ran its first challenge with a chemist who developed novel technology that allowed him to put DNA strands together chemically without the use of an enzyme. It was a cool scientific discovery, but neither the inventor nor the team knew what to do with it. So they posted it online and got responses from people in a variety of disciplines, including a Cambridge University Ph.D. student researching nucleotide drug delivery who felt he could apply this solution to a problem in his field. He was selected as the winner, and Mecklenburg said he and the inventor are in talks with the challenge’s founder, IP Group PLC, on the possibility of forming a company.
IP Group was also apparently impressed enough with how the beta test went to give the company about $600,000 in seed money.
Mecklenburg said the team’s strategy moving forward is “very controlled growth,” starting with five challenges currently listed on the site, to ensure that each challenge gets a high volume of quality responses.
A simple, flexible, lightweight and stable spectrometer posted on the site has already garnered 33 entries, and a method for piggybacking onto a virus’ infection pathway to deliver basically any kind of compound to the insides of cells has generated 24. Mecklenburg said that the team has about 25 technologies lined up for the site, including some molecular biology tools from Cambridge and a novel enzyme assay from Imperial College London.
It sounds like a great idea — if Marblar can find the right business model. For now, it’s taking a listing fee paid by institutions and companies. “Our first project is creating value by demonstrating that this is a viable approach and can generate a lot of value for our customers,” Mecklenburg said. “Right now, we’re focused on building a great product. If we get that right, the monetizing will be easy.”