Vast amounts of scientific data are collected every day, but a lack of data sharing among researchers is resulting in a major research replication crisis. Luckily, startup Frankl Open Science, the world’s first blockchain-integrated open science platform, has stepped up to address this major opportunity cost.
The platform integrates data sharing into the scientific workflow, allowing for automated, trackable data sharing. Frankl Open Science is the brain-child of cognitive scientist Dr Jon Brock and blockchain guru Peter Godbolt, who set out to create it easier and more rewarding for time-poor scientists to share data. We sat down with Jon to find out about the genesis of Frankl, the startup’s biggest successes and challenges and how open science will benefit the global research community.
1. What’s your career background?
I’ve spent most of my career in academia. I did a PhD in Psychology studying a rare genetic condition called Williams syndrome. I’ve also done research on Down syndrome, dyslexia, and autism.
I worked as a post-doc at Bristol and Oxford Universities in the UK and then spent 10 years at Macquarie University in Sydney where I was an ARC Australian Research Fellow in the Department of Cognitive Science and a Chief Investigator at the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders.
2. How did you first identify the business gap that led you to create Frankl?
Frankl is really the intersection of two ideas that arose from my experience as a researcher.
Back in the early 2000s, I was working on a couple of projects with kids with Down syndrome and then kids with autism. I noticed that when I gave them tests that involved using a touchscreen, they seemed to perform much better than they did on more traditional pen and paper tests we were using. It was as if the touchscreen was getting at their true abilities. And so when iPads came out and parents started saying that they were “unlocking” their kids’ abilities, it seemed obvious to me that iPad-based cognitive assessments were the way forward – not just for autistic kids but for everyone.
At the same time, I’ve been getting increasingly involved in the world of open science. Open science is really just the idea that science works best when it’s done transparently. But there are a number of barriers to open science – one of which is that it takes time and effort to do well and there’s actually very little incentive for researchers. For example, the time you spend curating your data, making sure that other people can find it, make sense of it, and actually use it, that’s time that you’re not doing other things like writing papers and grant proposals. A couple of years ago I was talking to a friend, Alex Holcombe, who’s a professor at the University of Sydney. He told me how he programmed his experiments so that all the data curation was effectively built into the data collection. Most people don’t have Alex’s technical skills. So our idea was to build all of these data curation capabilities into the apps we’re making so that anyone can be an open scientist and can share their data in a way that’s meaningful and useful.
It’s good for researchers, but it’s also good for the organizations who are funding research, whether that be government, philanthropy, or business. Ultimately, they want the best return on their investment in science. And giving scientists the tools they need to collaborate and share their data more openly is one of the best ways of achieving that return.
3. What have been the biggest challenges in your first year?
For me personally, the biggest challenge has been getting my head around the technology side of things as well as the business and legal aspects. Frankl co-founder, Peter Godbolt, has been working in tech for a long time – in web and app development and then more recently in blockchain and cryptocurrencies. There are huge opportunities in bringing together the worlds of science and tech, but it’s been really important to make sure we’re not talking past each other or proposing solutions that make sense in one world but not in the other.
This is all made even more challenging by the rapid changes in the tech space over the last year. There’s a lot of uncertainty. For example, we’re using blockchain as part of our solution, creating a supply chain from raw data to scientific paper. When we started Frankl in January, there was a huge amount of excitement about blockchain and cryptocurrencies. Since then, that the bubble has burst. In the long run, that’s a good thing. It means that the projects that survive are going to be the ones who provide a genuine use case for the technology and who actually build products that people want.
4. What’s been the best part and your biggest successes?
The most exciting part for me has been really getting to know some of the tech and then thinking about how that can be applied to solve problems in science. One of the things we’ve been saying all along is that a lot of the solutions already exist. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I really believe that.
Probably our biggest success so far was getting an Open Research Fund grant from the Wellcome Trust. The grant was for a simple memory test designed by our collaborator, neuropsychologist Professor Greg Savage, for use with patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. But it incorporates lots of features that make it easy for people to store their data securely and share with the right people, both in a research context and as a clinical tool. There were 96 applications and I think just 8 awards, so it was really fierce competition. It’s allowing us to move quickly now on building the software. But it’s also really validating for us to have an organisation like Wellcome say that they believe in what we’re doing.
5. What is your advice for people working in research and looking to move into a startup?
If you’ve got a good idea then it’s definitely worth thinking about a startup. Academics are often quite dismissive of commercialisation – we think of science as this noble pursuit of knowledge and the idea of making money is somehow dirty or a distraction. But sometimes, turning an idea into a business is actually the best way to move things forward and translate an idea or finding into something that actually makes a difference to people’s lives. It might also be more sustainable in the long run. The problem with relying on research grants is that eventually they run out and all your hard work can go to waste if there’s no continuing support. So having a sustainable business model can be a good way of ensuring that you have the most immediate but also the longest lasting impact.
6. How can open science benefit the science research community as a whole?
One way that open science benefits the research community is by giving greater trust in research findings. Science works because you don’t have to trust scientists – you trust the evidence, the data – and because you know how the data were collected and analysed. So the more open it is, the less you have to take on trust. There’s a lot of concern at present about the trustworthiness of scientific findings. When people try and replicate other people’s studies, they often get quite different results. Conducting research more openly is one way of addressing those concerns.
But there’s more to open science than that. Isaac Newton famously talked about “standing on the shoulders of giants”. Science isn’t something that can be done in isolation. We gain new knowledge more quickly if we can build on other people’s work – their ideas, their methods, their data. So open science means more rapid discoveries as well as more reliable findings. For example, we’re increasingly seeing major discoveries being made by people who haven’t actually collected the data themselves but have re-analysed existing data that other researchers have shared openly.
That’s why the organisations that fund research, particularly the big philanthropic organisations like the Gates Foundation and the Wellcome Trust are really pushing researchers to behave more openly. Open science means that they get the biggest knowledge return on their investment in scientists.
7. What does the next 2 years look like for Frankl?
Our priority right now is to push forward with the development of our prototype application. Once people have something concrete – an app they can download and they can run and see where all the data is going – it becomes easier to imagine how the same concept and the same principles can be applied to other scientific contexts.
It also means that we can easily repurpose the code from that first app to build other apps that test slightly different things. That’s where my academic connections are really useful. We’ve got a queue of researchers with apps that they want building. And so in parallel to the app development, we’re busily building relationships with research organisations whose goals align with our own and who see value in Frankl for their researchers. There are lots of opportunities here for cooperative research partnerships, linkage grants and so on.
We’re also increasingly thinking about the direct clinical applications of what we’re doing. The solutions we’re creating for researchers – user-friendly assessment apps, secure data management and permissioned data sharing – are also directly applicable to clinical contexts. For example, parents of kids with disabilities tell us that one of the real challenges they face is getting bounced from one specialist to another, with very little communication between them. Having an app that facilitates sharing of assessment results between clinicians and parents could be incredibly powerful – and empowering.
In the longer term, we’re thinking about the bigger picture in science. It makes sense for us to focus initially on psychology and cognitive science because that’s where we have expertise and we know there’s a big market for cognitive tests. But the general principles of making open science part of a frictionless scientific workflow is something that translates to lots of different areas of research. So we’re always very happy to speak to people in any area of science, tech, or business who can see broader applications for what we’re doing.
Agtech startup FluroSat, headed by aeronautical engineer Anastasia Volkova, had its origins through the University of Sydney’s Inventing the Future entrepreneurial program. Since its inception two years ago, it has already captured the attention of investors and is now about to launch its new online platform to the Australian market.
Volkova sums up one of the problems the agricultural industry is currently facing in a nutshell: “Farms are large and farmers are busy. The opportunity for different applications of remote sensing technology [to be converted] into crop stress indicators has found resonance in the farming and agricultural community. We’re turning this data into insights.”
Flurosat uses remote sensing images (captured by multi-/ and hyperspectral cameras on board satellites, airplanes and drones) to capture early indicators of crop stress. The team have developed a subscription-based platform (FluroSense™) to infuse this data into a smart solution for precision farming. Agronomists can use the platform to spot crop stress indicators and verify the exact locations at risk. They can then consult with farmers on how to best target the areas which need attention.
Unlimited satellite data is available on the platform, additional aircraft-obtained data can be ordered and users can even upload their own drone data. Volkova explains the critical requirements for data connectivity, from locational identification of the crop stressors through to quantification, analysis and interpretation. “We’re making the remote sensing work for precision agriculture and [extracting] insights from crop stress indicators that crop stress models help us look for. It’s a two-step approach that very few other [agtech] companies are using.”
The agtech startup has three main pillars: agriculture, remote sensing and data science/machine learning. The diverse and international team bring together their expertise in agtech, aerospace, software development and data analytics and are based at FluroSat’s head offices in Sydney and Kiev. “Flurosat was born out of a desire to make an impact”, says Volkova. She explains that she examined the unique value proposition of her skills and how she could apply them to a global problem. “It’s important to have a purpose to wake up every morning to.”
Volkova speaks proudly about the startup and her colleagues: “It’s harnessing people’s superpowers and skills for a great purpose.” She says that one of their biggest successes so far has been convincing clients of the usefulness of the data and that it’s possible to get the full benefits to visit the field in person. “We’ve proven that you don’t need a person on the ground to provide customer service.”
FluroSat is gearing up to conduct the company’s third season of monitoring of primarily cotton crop in Australia this summer and expand its reach globally, particularly to the North and South American markets. “We’re looking at driving the value of the insights on the large scale.”
Featured image above: CSIRO, Norwood Industries and Solafast staff inspect a length of printed solar film. Credit: CSIRO
The new, nimble, business-led funding rounds that led to the Cooperative Research Centre Projects (CRC-Ps) are winning praise across industry, government and academia for their fast turnaround time, focus, and appeal to small-to-medium enterprise.
With the second round of successful grants announced in early February 2017, there are now a total of 28 projects granted funds ranging from $425,000 to $3 million through the CRC-P initiative.
CRC Association CEO Tony Peacock says the initiative came out of a recommendation made by the Miles Review for “smaller collaborations operating on short project timelines with simpler governance and administration arrangements and less funding”.
“I think CRC-Ps will probably become more important to the start-up sector because it is a significant amount of money early in a company’s development,” says Peacock.
One such start-up benefiting from CRC-P funding is Solafast who, in partnership with CSIRO and Norwood Industries, received $1.6 million to help develop building materials that integrate flexible, printed solar films.
“The product we’re creating will look much better than standard solar panels on a roof, be quicker and easier to install, and allows for more flexible building design,” says Leesa Blazley, Solafast’s Director of Business Development.
The project brings together CSIRO’s expertise in printed solar films, Norwood’s experience in commercial printing, and Solafast’s roll-formed cladding. It is a partnership that is aiming to deliver a proof-of-concept product within two years.
“By the end of the project we’ll have a working prototype and be close to scaling up for commercial release,” says Blazley. “Without the funding it would have been very difficult to develop a product that was market ready.”
CSIRO’s Dr Fiona Scholes, who is also working on the Solafast project, says the CRC-P funds are well geared towards the needs of CSIRO’s small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) industry partners.
“What we have found through our interactions with the Australian manufacturing industry is that they’re not short of ideas – they’ve got a real thirst for innovation – but the stumbling block is almost always lacking the funds to make something meaningful happen,” says Scholes, Group Leader in Industrial Innovation at CSIRO Manufacturing.
“Having that requirement to have an SME on these projects is accommodating the Australian manufacturing innovation ecosystem in a relevant way.”
Another CRC-P is using the funding opportunity to significantly advance an important diagnostic test that could help pick up metastatic cancer a lot earlier than is currently possible.
Dr John Deadman, CEO of Chemocopeia, which is leading this CRC-P, says the funding has been essential to moving the diagnostic test from theoretical to practical.
“Chemocopeia and the CSIRO had developed an understanding of the biological side of the project, but we didn’t have the expertise around setting up an assay system to clinical standard in an accredited format that would be able to be used rigorously and robustly,” Deadman says.
With $582,500 from the CRC-P initiative, they have joined forces with Innoviron and 360biolabs, and are well on their way to developing the diagnostic assay.
“At the end of the year we hope to have a reproducible and robust system that we can start to test clinical samples with,” explains Deadman.
He also says that the set-up of the CRC-P funding is unique in fostering a greater focus among participants. “What’s good is it’s trying to tackle a specific problem rather than just make a particular stage in a bigger project.”
In the pipeline
The first round of CRC-P funding, which was announced in June 2016, funded 11 projects in total:
Integrated driver monitoring solution for heavy vehicles
Hydrocarbon fuel technology for hypersonic air breathing vehicles
Printed solar films for value-added building products for Australia
R&D to accelerate sustainable omega-3 production
Innovative prefabricated building systems
An antibody-based in-vitro diagnostic for metastatic cancer
High-performance optical telemetry system for ocean monitoring
Combined carbon capture from flue gas streams and mineral carbonation
Improving Australia’s radiopharmaceutical development capabilities
Innovation in advanced multi-storey housing manufacture
The second round, announced in February 2017, funded the following projects:
Large area perovskite photovoltaic material coating on glass substrate
High-power density motors incorporating advanced manufacturing methods
New super high oleic bio-based oil
Manufacturing of high performance building envelope systems
Lightweight automotive carbon fibre seats
Targeting tropomyosin as anti-cancer therapy
Glass technologies and photovoltaics in protected cropping
Modelling navigational aids in tidal inlets
Field deployable unit for the detection of perfluorinated contaminants
Universal solar module inspection and data storage system
Targeted therapy for sleep apnoea
Enhanced market agility for tea tree industry
Tech-enabled care for head trauma
Industrialisation of a diagnostic biosensor for bladder cancer
Wear life extension via surface engineered laser cladding for mining
The trip was a revelation, as I witnessed in a very real and tangible way that a national groundswell towards a knowledge-based economy is possible.
As Avi Hasson, Chief Scientist at the Ministry of Economy explained, Israel has accelerated from “oranges, as the largest export 20 years ago, to technology now being a $US50 billion GDP contributor”.
After an inspiring eight days studying the mechanisms of one of the world’s great start-up communities – and particularly the key role that universities play in technology transfer – I believe it is vital that Australian universities capitalise on the new focus on innovation and collaboration if we are to create our own startup nation.
‘Collaboration [is] a breath of fresh air between industry and Israel’s universities’
I saw in Israel that a culture formed from 2000 years of overcoming adversity underpins innovation and entrepreneurship there. The startup community’s innovative spirit is also formed in the crucible of military conscription, where lives are at risk and everyone is personally involved and affected.
It is something of the national character that Israelis are alert to possibilities that can make a difference, and willing to take action, quickly!
This culture is not a template Australia can replicate. However, the delegation’s visit to a number of different educational institutions allows an Australian take on the Israeli strategy.
As delegation member Jonathan Marshall, founder of Bondi Labs, put it, we were witness to “mutual collaboration – a breath of fresh air between industry and Israel’s universities”.
In Israel, everyone knows everyone, and this promotes positive channels between governments, academia and industry. For universities, the key is to find researchers who are early adopters of industry collaboration, and to experiment with small initiatives.
Demonstrating small wins in a risk-averse environment like Australia will assist in propagating advocates, and will generate incentives to commercialise technology developed by our institutions.
Technion, a science and technology research university based in Haifa, north of Tel Aviv, has a strong mechanism to engage entrepreneurs: every student enrolled has to take a mandatory Minor in Entrepreneurship.
This particularly resonated with Adrian Turner, CEO of Data61, CSIRO’s commercialisation vehicle. He says it reminded him of the 18 years he spent in the US’s startup nation Silicon Valley. “The system seems to be very focused on encouraging students to pursue the entrepreneurial path,” he says. The result? Technion transfers into the economy 100 student-led businesses a year, with revenues that exceed $US32 million.
‘The system seems to be very focused on encouraging students to pursue the entrepreneurial path’
Building a startup nation
At the other tech transfer leader, Hebrew University, researchers are strongly encouraged to engage with industry.
Liaising with professionals with real-life challenges and opportunities influences academic research outcomes, in turn solving unmet market needs. Products based on the university’s tech transfer developments generate more than $US2 billion in annual sales.
Both business models are successful. As Sarah Pearson, CEO and Founder of Canberra-based CBR Innovation Network explains, “Science and innovation education permeate the culture of Israel, beginning by engaging three-year-olds in science. Parents value entrepreneurship as a career, universities foster a culture of impact and commercial outcomes, and the government supports this in a strategic and holistic way.”
A lot has been said about the need for Australian schools to provide more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) education. In Israel, Jon Medved, CEO ofOurCrowd, the world’s biggest equity crowd funding platform, told us Israel is “running out of geeks”.
So, visiting the science and technology education centre Technoda was humbling. Technoda attracts more than 30,000 children a year to science enrichment classes, from every ethnic group, religion and lifestyle.
With the recent opening of a second campus, just 10 kilometres north of Gaza, it is clear STEM education can and must be accessible to everyone.
From a university perspective, Australia needs to worry about the brain drain as well. Some 8000 IT students graduate from Australian universities and return to homes overseas each year.
Until the throughput of social ventures such as Code Club Australia start to drive new, local STEM talent into the Australian workforce, we must do much more to encourage this demographic of international graduates to stay and help build our tech startup community.
Universities have a major part to play in guiding future talent into an innovative environment where government, industry and academia collaborate.
We can promote this now with students playing a central role. Students must be able to access entrepreneurial education programs and easier ways to commercialise university technologies.
Israel is leading the way. It’s time for Australia to take the next step. – Stephen Rutter
Stephen Rutter is Manager of UTS Business School’s Business Practice Unit. Among other things the unit facilitates engagement between faculty, industry and the entrepreneurial community. He was previously an Executive in Residence at Flinders University, where he was involved in starting up its New Venture Institute.
See the federal government’s Innovation Statement here, and the Innovation Inquiry Report here, including the Expert Report by the Dean of UTS Business School, Professor Roy Green.
UTS Vice-Chancellor Attila Brungs talks about university and industry working together here.