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Catalyst: Speeding Up Science

January 16, 2015

ID students analyzed the existing landscape of scientific labs, identified an unforseen need, and designed their equipment-sharing service.
ID students analyzed the existing landscape of scientific labs, identified an unforseen need, and designed their equipment-sharing service.


Form a team of four; find an unmet or poorly met need; verify and explore the need through research; conceive of a new product/service to better meet the need; design and prototype the product/service; and create a presentation summarizing your product/service. Time available: 6 weeks.


Catalyst is a service for scientists working in university, government and startup laboratories that connects those who need access to specialized, expensive lab instruments to laboratories willing to share them at a determined rate. The service supports sharing and improves the experience by making it easy to: list or search for instruments, schedule lab visits, manage payments, and support communication—both on and offline—between “guest” scientists and “host” labs. Catalyst eliminates access to instruments as a barrier to scientific research and gives scientists a new way to connect and collaborate.


Catalyst began when a PhD candidate in Chemistry from Howard University in Washington, D.C., explained how limited resources have affected his research. Among other issues, his use of older instruments made his experiments more difficult to replicate, which he felt limited the value of his work among his peers. The problem is widespread, and it’s limiting the careers of young scientists and the overall quality of scientific research in the United States.

The Catalyst team set out to design a service that would allow anyone, from any laboratory, access to the lab instruments they need to do their best work.

Proposed User Experience

A lab manager (host) creates a lab profile and lists instruments the lab will share. He provides information about instrument capabilities and proper usage, lab rules and expectations and supplies and training offered.

A scientist (guest) creates a profile, including affiliation, areas of interest and previous research. She searches for an instrument and compares options. She selects an instrument and submits a request, along with details about her experiment. She agrees to fees and lab rules.

The host approves the visit and Catalyst sends both host and guest a confirmation. The visit is added to the host lab’s calendar to alert others in the lab.

Guest and host receive a reminder on the day of the visit and the guest is prompted to review the lab rules. The guest can view a map and walking directions via the app. The host receives a mobile alert when she arrives.

The host greets the guest and provides a tour of the lab and training if required. The guest wears the Catalyst name tag delivered in her welcome package to let others know who she is and why she’s there. She gets an alert when her time is almost up.

The guest checks out using the Catalyst app and tells the host she is leaving. Payment is handled through the service. The guest and host are prompted to review each other after the visit. The guest also reviews the lab and instrument.


We conducted our project in three phases. In the first phase, we focused on understanding the depth and breadth of the problem of access for scientists in academic R&D labs. We looked at reports from the National Science Foundation on trends in national, state and corporate funding and talked to PhD candidates at Howard University in Washington, D.C. and a lab manager at the Illinois Institute of Technology to hear their stories first hand.

Because our original hypothesis focused on the transfer of idle lab instruments from corporate labs to academic labs to solve the problem of access, we conducted additional secondary research and expert interviews to better understand: why corporations store instruments instead of selling, recycling or donating them; the perception of second-hand lab instruments by scientists and lab managers in academic settings; and the activities and cost involved in the handling, transfer, use and maintenance of second-hand lab instruments.

We realized that we had a problem worth solving, but the wrong solution. Our research uncovered serious barriers to shifting instruments from corporate to academic labs, including complicated logistics and liability and safety issues. An interview activity we created to explore other concepts led our team to focus our next phase of research on exploring the idea of sharing, which we learned was a workaround already in use in the scientific community.

In the second phase of our project, we set out to learn as much as we could about sharing and developing a set of design principles for our service. Using what we already knew, we created a service journey as a hypothesis for how the service might work. We crafted a Google survey to test our assumptions and gather data from a larger pool of scientists working in a variety of labs about their perceptions of and experiences with sharing. We also used it as a recruiting tool, asking scientists to provide their contact information if they wanted to participate in a prototype of our service. We posted the survey on ResearchGate, a social network for scientists, and asked friends in the scientific community to share it with colleagues via Twitter and Facebook.

In the third phase, following our analysis of the survey data, we developed an interactive prototype to test usability, as well as the voice and tone of the service, and to uncover potential failure points. This helped us refine the offering and understand where we should be prescriptive in our design, and where we would be better off creating guard rails that would allow the community to self-regulate. For example, we knew we couldn’t entirely control interactions between the host and visiting scientists, but certain elements could nudge people toward ideal behaviors, like a ratings system, alerts to let visiting scientists know they should begin to wrap up their work and reminders about the lab’s rules and expectations.


The team created an interactive HTML demo to validate and refine their concept.

Final Results

All of the team’s work was collected into a final presentation and video.



  • April Starr


Maggee Bond
J. Thomas Gaskin
Anushree Jain
Alisa Weinstein