Researchers regularly grapple with the necessary evil of overcapacity. Their work is not possible without specialized and often very expensive pieces of equipment: sophisticated microscopes, spectrometers, centrifuges and other high-end infrastructure that make a lab capable of obtaining results worthy of publication. Nevertheless, much of this equipment will end up being used only part-time or just for brief periods.
Brandon Aubie saw this harsh fact of scientific life for himself soon after he completed his PhD in 2013 and joined McMaster University’s Biointerfaces Institute. This facility, dedicated to investigating the interaction between biological systems and inert materials, is home to a wide variety of cutting-edge research tools. Most of them, Aubie found, were not being heavily used much of the time and some were duplicates of equipment found elsewhere on campus.
With the goal of inviting other McMaster researchers to take advantage of this facility’s under-utilized resources, Aubie created an online database called QReserve that listed what was available for use at the Biointerfaces Institute. This initiative garnered so much attention that by May 2014 he had left his previous post to become QReserve’s CEO and expand the organization’s scope. “We decided to take that model that we’d built and try to replicate it across McMaster,” Aubie says. “Now we’re trying to take it to universities across Canada.”
Currently some 250 laboratories are participating in QReserve, which lists about 5,000 different pieces of equipment or services that others might be interested in using. Aubie makes the point that even researchers who are not necessarily interested in sharing what they have nevertheless have a vested interest in joining the database, where others working in the same field might learn about their work and strike up a collaboration.
In this way, Aubie points to yet another example of how the online sharing economy is redefining the way various traditional sectors go about their business. Just as Uber and Airbnb have shaken up established models for transportation and accommodation, he expects QReserve to carve out its own niche within the research community. “Maybe you’re paying for a service,” he says. “Maybe you’re going to submit samples and then do some work. Maybe it’s going to be a collaboration on the next Nature paper. It could be anything. It’s not just about a fee-for-service type of work.”