To create life-saving drugs or groundbreaking technological advancements, scientists first need the proper lab equipment. Everything from intricate and expensive specialized machines to beakers and rubber gloves must be sourced, price compared and ordered by a lab manager before even the first steps toward discovery can take place.
But, says Tom Ruginis, CEO and founder of the virtual lab manger startup HappiLabs, the process for finding the best and most cost-effective materials for your lab is far from a standardized process.
“The pricing aspect started catching my attention more and more,” Ruginis told TechCrunch. “The profit margin for lab supplies is extraordinarily large. Scientists don’t know that, and even if they know that it’s really hard for them to shop around. There’s nowhere for them to go.”
As an ex-PhD student and lab manager himself, Ruginis has first-hand experience with the struggles — and shortcuts — necessary to properly stock your lab. After leaving his PhD program in pharmacology, Ruginis took a job as a salesman for a scientific distributor and saw that even labs that were floors apart were paying drastically different prices for the same basic supplies.
Taken aback at how far behind scientific purchasing was from the rest of the retail world, Ruginis began compiling his own spreadsheet of pricing information and, with the help of his then-girlfriend (now wife) Rachel, began designing small price-comparison pamphlets for items like gloves and beakers to distribute to local labs to give them a perspective on the pricing space.
“I went to this one lab that I knew was paying too much,” said Ruginis. “I had data showing that a lab three floors up in their building was paying almost half the price. I went straight to [the lab] and showed [them] this. I asked ‘would you give me $10 for this info and if I kept bringing you more pricing info?’ They gave me $10 and in my head that was our first customer.”
Ruginis says the pamphlets grew from one page to eight and it wasn’t long after that labs began coming to him directly for purchasing guidance and outsourcing. And in 2012, with $20,000 raised from friends and family, he launched HappiLabs as a virtual lab manager for labs, spanning topics from biotech and brain research to robotics.
Since its launch, HappiLabs has grown to 14 employees — comprising six PhD virtual lab managers and eight support staff — and, after earning $1 million in 2017, this summer received a $120,000 investment from Y Combinator.
Actively working with 26 labs across the country, Ruginis says the company is ready to begin incorporating more software and technology into the company and is searching for a CTO to help it reach that goal.
“We’re building an internal software tool that’s strictly for lab managers,” said Ruginis. “What some other companies have done is they’ll try to build a tool and give it to all the lab managers on the planet, but what we’re doing is we’re building a tool for us [first]. We’re going to use it for a few years, make it awesome, and then we’ll end up selling that somewhere down the line as a lab manager software.”
Even further down the road, Ruginis says he imagines creating both hardware and software that can not only be installed in labs across the world (think Alexa for scientists) but even support scientific advancement in labs that are out-of-this-world for future scientists working on the red planet or the ISS.