A quick look at the news headlines reveals dozens of pressing global problems. Long-term drought conditions causing food shortages for millions of people. A growing need for clean energy and clean water. Diseases like Zika that spread rapidly across the world to our own backyards.
At Seeding Labs, a Boston-based nonprofit, we believe that the best way to solve these problems is to solve them at their source by empowering scientists in the developing world.
Very often, when we think about cures for diseases or better crops for struggling farmers, our mental picture is of scientists in cutting-edge labs in a few hotspots like Boston, Toronto, Basel, or Singapore. But there are also thousands of brilliant scientists conducting critical research outside these well-appointed labs, in places like Nairobi, Lima, and Hanoi. They are incredibly motivated and many have been trained in some of the best research institutions in the world. They are working on the front lines of pressing local and global issues.
But they face numerous barriers to innovation including one of the most basic: access to sufficient modern lab equipment to conduct their research. Since 2008, Seeding Labs has addressed this need through our flagship program Instrumental Access and built a model to meet global scientists’ needs for equipment in a scalable, sustainable way.
To date, we’ve sent equipment and instruments worth over $3.9 million to 44 institutions in 26 countries— everything from petri dishes to mass spectrometers.
For those of you who have worked with us, the way we do this may seem very simple: receive donations of surplus equipment and supplies, box them up, and ship them to scientists in the developing world. But our process is far more involved because our goal is larger than merely moving materials. We want to ensure that great science moves forward.
To do that, Seeding Labs requires a deep understanding of scientists’ needs and of the institutions we work with both at home and abroad, as well as the ability to navigate international logistics and overcome operational hurdles that much larger corporations never face. And we do it all with fewer than ten full-time staff people, supported by financial contributions from people like you.
So how do we do it? To show you how it works, let me take you through the process of our Instrumental Access projects.
Identifying talent & need
Instrumental Access starts not with the instruments but with people. Through equipment, we are making an investment in scientists and their institutions. To make the best investment, talent identification is key.
We start with a written application to Instrumental Access that is rigorous, thorough, and a little different from a typical grant application. Each potential partner submits detailed information on the expertise, infrastructure, and supporting resources currently available at their institution; what specific equipment they need; how they would install and maintain it and above all, how they would use it to benefit teaching and research.
Seeding Labs staff and a panel of scientific reviewers meticulously review these applications. We conduct due diligence research and videoconference interviews with applicants and other members of their team who will be crucial to the success of the project—technical personnel, finance officers, and administrators, up through to the president of the university.
In 2015 alone, we received 67 applications from 25 countries, representing the range of emerging scientific markets. From our review process, we emerged with 16 university partners for 2016 and a clear picture of each one. These institutions have strong leadership and the scientists themselves are recognized leaders including Fulbright and Rhodes scholars who have returned home to tackle important development challenges and teach the next generation. They report needing benchtop items like pH meters, centrifuges, microscopes, and water baths to provide hands-on classes for thousands of undergraduates. Research projects on crucial problems from crop genetics to cancer biomarkers are stymied by needs for PCR machines, spectrophotometers, and even basics like microscopes.
Tapping overlooked equipment
There are literal tons of just these types of instruments in labs and basements and warehouses like yours. A clinical trial concludes, a newer instrument is released, a division is consolidated, and gently-used or even new equipment is relegated to storage. Each year some of that surplus is resold domestically; much of it is discarded or sent to deep storage. Seeding Labs converts that surplus into a catalyst for science around the world, with benefits to the institutions that donate the equipment as well.
We invest as much effort in understanding the needs of our equipment donors as those of the scientists who will receive that equipment. We work with each donor to fit with their asset management systems and with legal, finance, and other internal processes.
We strive to keep our donation process simple. At the same time, we rely on donors to magnify the efforts of our small team by identifying their instruments that are in good working order, sending us a comprehensive list of items, and making sure each one is safe to handle. We can then ensure donations are transported to our warehouse outside Boston from anywhere in the country and transfer ownership and responsibility from the donor to us.
More than 100 equipment manufacturers, R&D corporations, universities, hospitals, and individuals have donated over $5 million in equipment and supplies to Seeding Labs in the last six years. Many of them have established recurring donation programs each quarter or year.
The ability to clear out a warehouse and take outdated stock off the shelves in an environmentally positive way are strong incentives. Added to this are the opportunities to make a deductible charitable contribution, engage employees in a corporate social responsibility program that fits directly with their skills, and make a lasting connection and contribution to scientists in emerging markets.
Once their equipment arrives at our warehouse, however, the process is far from over. Most small businesses handle a correspondingly small inventory of products. Our inventory, on the other hand, changes every day and spans all equipment types and manufacturers. For example, our inventory includes hot plates made by 30 manufacturers!
Equipment arriving at our warehouse is inspected and photographs and key technical information are added to our online inventory. That comprehensive information feeds into our custom-built “shopping portal” that our partner scientists browse to select the contents of their shipment.We provide assistance in choosing equipment to best meet their department’s needs, discussing technical specs, power transformation needs, related software and accessories, and installation and maintenance requirements to ensure that they receive the best match for their setup.
This tailored approach is why each shipment of Instrumental Access equipment is unique; there is no “one size fits all” delivery. It’s also a novel approach to material aid—giving our partners the opportunity to hand-select each piece that fills their 20-foot shipping container.
Once the shipment’s contents are finalized, we navigate the challenges of ocean freight and customs regulations of dozens of countries. We coordinate with the university’s finance and procurement officers, customs and clearing agents, freight forwarders, government officials, and even manufacturers of equipment to ensure all of the import paperwork is in order, and our partners have what they need to oversee the container’s delivery to their doorstep.
From installation to impact
From there, the scientists and university personnel take charge of unpacking and installation. We stay in frequent contact in those first few months to determine that all the equipment arrived in useable condition and they have plugged in and powered on every instrument.
Our relationship with the scientists continues long after setup is completed. Equipment is only one resource they need. Through partnerships with other organizations, we offer them access to publication assistance and plasmids. We follow up with them annually through surveys and phone calls to learn how the equipment has been used to accelerate technology education and research projects. Ultimately we aim to help them connect with mentors and scientific collaborators and bring their ideas from the lab to the marketplace.
As a first step, our human-centered Instrumental Access is showing results. In a sample of just six universities that received shipments from 2013 through 2015, we find that more than 5,800 students each year are taking courses that incorporate the equipment. Scientists at the University of Technology in Jamaica, for example, were able to include experiments that had been left out of their curriculum before because they had lacked the right instruments.
Up-and-coming scientists at these six universities have already used Seeding Labs instruments to complete 31 Masters’ theses and 23 PhD dissertations. Faculty members have utilized Instrumental Access equipment to advance more than two dozen research projects, and to win new research grants totaling more than $1M. They are synthesizing new compounds against cancer cells and malaria, tackling aflatoxin contamination in peanuts, and monitoring the environmental impacts of landfills.
These results testify that a holistic and in-depth approach is what is needed to see real impact. While Seeding Labs’ Instrumental Access model is complex, at heart it is designed to engage the scientific community at all levels, meet its needs in a lasting way, and ultimately bring scientists across the world closer together to conduct research that benefits us all.