HackScience presented with the £10,000 prize by Dr Markus Perkmann (L), Head of the Department of Innovation and Entrepreneurship, and Bruno Cotta (R), Director of Enterprise Strategy.
On Wednesday 30th November, MSc Business Analytics student Ignacio Willats and Engineering PhD student Ali Afshar won £10,000 in funding for HackScience at Imperial College Business School’s annual I&E START! Challenge, organised by the Enterprise Lab.
For six months, HackScience and interdisciplinary teams from across Imperial College Business School worked to commercialise business ideas across various industries as part of the Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Design (IE&D) and Innovation, Entrepreneurship & Management (IE&M) programmes.
Eight teams were selected to pitch their business ideas to a panel of venture capitalists and angel investors who evaluated the new businesses on market opportunity, product or service feasibility, and market entry and growth strategy, amongst other criteria.
The top three teams at the end of the day pitched their ideas to a Dragons Den style panel at the evening ceremony and winners HackScience were presented with a prize of £10,000.
We caught up with HackScience’s co-founders Ignacio Willats and Ali Afshar, and afterwards asked the ‘dragons’ why they chose HackScience to win the 2016 I&E START! Challenge.
Tell us about HackScience.
HackScience accelerates scientific research by enabling scientists to create and share affordable lab tools that automate manual processes. We’re doing this by utilising IoT and web technologies.
63% of researchers we surveyed spend more than half of their time in the lab conducting manual lab processes. This is a huge drain on the 13 million scientists in the world. Automated tools exist but normally to the tune of £50,000 and above, far too expensive for a researcher.
HackScience is changing this by creating a platform that enables scientists and makers to easily create and share open-source lab tools that by utilising maker technology, and enter at a price that is affordable to academic labs. Our HackScience Hub sits at the centre of our platform: it enables users to easily connect tools to the cloud and create interfaces that would normally require the skills of a software engineer.
How does it feel to win the I&E START! Challenge 2016?
Very surreal. The £10,000 will be put directly to the development of our software platform. We’ll bring two members of our team on full time. Some of this money will also be used to help deliver the first batch of our automated Cell Culture tool which aims to save three hours a day and hundreds of thousands of pounds for biology researchers.
How did you come up with HackScience?
HackScience was born out of an experiment we ran to address a key issue Ali (co-founder) had observed in his Chemistry lab at Imperial. Scientific research is extremely manual and automated tools were extremely expensive. Utilising his science and hardware experience and my experience (Ignacio) in product management and running hackathons for the likes of the NHS, we ran a hackathon at Imperial College London to create affordable lab tools. To many people’s surprise, it worked! So we decided to make it our mission to help create a universe of affordable and easy to use lab automation tools to accelerate the pace of scientific research.
How did you come up with the name HackScience?
The term “hacking” in this context does not refer to cybercrime but to the act of finding more efficient ways of doing things utilising technology. This is exactly what we’re doing with science. So, Hack + Science just made sense!
Who’s in your team and who does what?
We’re a team that brings together the core strength of Imperial: business and science. Ignatio’s strengths are in attention to detail: he’s great at taking a step back and looking at what customers are interested in. Ali provides the technical and problem-solving expertise.
The HackScience includes: Ali Afshar – Ali utilises his hardware and scientific background to help lead our technology development and takes a lead on all things hardware. Ignacio Willats – Ignacio brings his product management and sales experience to the team to ensure the team is building the right solutions to solve our customers’ needs as well as winning business for the company. Dr James Bannock – James brings a wealth of robotics experience and helps guide the development of in-house tools that are developed. Henry Miskin – Simply put, Henry is fearless. His approach to solving challenges with software he develops means no problem is too big for us to solve. Sabin Marcu – Sabin is wizard at web development and develops software for HackScience.
What do you hope to achieve with HackScience in 6 months?
In 6 months, we want to create a biosuite of tools to automate processing laboratory work.
In 1 year HackScience hopes to be providing hubs to researchers in academia and BioTech companies who will be utilising our in-house built tools as well as a few of the early tools developed by the community.
In 5 years, HackScience aims to be the home of affordable, open and intelligent lab automation. Delivering solutions to academia, SMEs and big pharmaceuticals. At that stage we aim to be facilitating users that are creating and adapting their own tools using our software.
We want to fundamentally change the way scientists utilise technology and help bring the lab online and with that deliver the unquantifiable benefits of digitising and codifying manual processes that hold scientists back.
What would have been the next steps if you didn’t win the £10,000 award?
We would have brought forward the start of the process to raise our seed round.
How did you prepare for the competition?
We worked hard to ensure we developed a minimal viable product to demonstrate as well as refine our pitch. We also conducted extensive customer development to help us understand the deep challenges our customers face and build out our business logic.
How did you find the first round? What was it like working with the pitch coach?
We enjoyed the process! Working with Irene helped us distil our messaging and focus on the core points that needed to be communicated. Every round helped us to improve our pitch resulting in the final pitch on the night. We valued the process of improving and the feedback we received was valuable. It’s been great practice for raising funding.
What were the three main takeaways in your pitch?
- Scientific research underpins some of the most important sectors: medicine, the environment and even technology. Accelerating the foundations of these areas even slightly significantly accelerates the pace of innovation downstream.
- HackScience is leading a digital revolution in the lab that fundamentally changes the economics of utilising lab automation to increase efficiency and reproducibility that could help deliver unprecedented levels of acceleration to the field.
- The HackScience team has deep technical, product and business experience that provides a strong and well-rounded foundation to go forward and create significant value for customers and investors alike.
How has studying at Imperial College Business School helped you achieve this?
The MSc Business Analytics programme provided a rigorous framework to analysing data and systems that translates well into being diligent when seeking to truly understand the challenges customers face. The intensity of the course also does well to strengthen students who seek to achieve at the highest level.
Out of the classroom?
The Business School does well to promote cross disciplinary competitions and events to help create valuable connections that would otherwise be missed.
What are the advantages of studying at a business school that’s part of Imperial College London?
In short, HackScience would not exist if it were not for the connections that were facilitated between the business, science and technical members of the team. Cross disciplinary collaborations are what facilitates great innovation and Imperial College Business School has helped create those crucial links by virtue of being part of Imperial.
The Dragons’ Verdict
Afterwards, we caught up with ‘dragons’ Dr Harveen Chugh (Founder and Managing Director, VIS-3), Colin Spiller (London Angel Club Manager, Angels Den), and Graham Kennedy (Director and Principal Consultant, Alexoria) who explained their reasons for awarding the £10,000 prize to HackScience.
Colin: The team were broad and knowledgeable, and the business idea has massive market opportunity for growth. The team presented a working product with proven application and demand which capitalises on the drive of academics to be published. In the future, HackScience will attract more funding as it’s very easily solving an everyday issue. The next step for HackScience is to get visibility in the lab world for what they do, for example publish case studies and videos of scientists who’ve used the product and encourage researchers to join the community and get publishing.
Harveen: HackScience gave a dynamic pitch. Their business idea is highly credible and was built around the unique idea of the hackathon. The product is easy to use and is a huge positive for scientists as it allows them to develop their own tools – a bit like an ‘App Store’ for scientists to use. The product has the potential to scale in the university sector and across biotech labs globally. HackScience will help scientific research come to the marketplace more quickly through huge time and cost savings.
As an alumni PhD student of the Business School, it’s been fantastic to come back and see the strong entrepreneurial talent developing here.
Graham: The power of collaboration is brought to life in HackScience’s business model. The service reduces time to market for universities. Universities are collaborative by nature and so HackScience is building on a strong foundation. The next step for HackScience is to demonstrate their track record with compelling case studies.
As an Imperial College London alumni, I enjoyed coming back and it’s good to see the mixing of medicine, engineering and business.