Need A Lab In Outer Space? Try ScienceExchange, The Airbnb Of Weird Science

Want to grow crystals aboard the International Space Station? ScienceExchange is fast becoming the go-to marketplace for extreme laboratory environments.


Let’s say you’re a scientist, and you’re running an experiment, but there’s just one pesky thing getting in your way: gravity. A few years ago, you’d pretty much have been out of luck. But now, with a startup called ScienceExchange, a marketplace for research assistance, you can send your samples up to the International Space Station in about nine months. ScienceExchange, which opened to the public in August, was originally intended to help forge much more sublunary connections within the research community. But in the few months it’s been operational, says cofounder Dan Knox, ScienceExchange has also become a marketplace for extreme and weird science, too.

“It’s been one of the most fun aspects, hearing about these amazing resources,” Knox tells Fast Company, “and realizing that at the moment there isn’t a good way for them to gain exposure outside of creating their own web presence…I love the fact that NanoRacks listed their facility.” 

NanoRacks is where you turn if you want to remove gravity from your experiment. NanoRacks works together with astronauts at the International Space Station, where it maintains laboratory equipment. In 2005, Congress designated a portion of the ISS a national laboratory and directed NASA to “increase the utilization of the ISS by other Federal entities and the private sector.” NanoRacks, which has been open for business a little over a year, is a part of that.

Why would you want to do research in space? By removing gravity, you can better understand materials and processes. “Oil and vinegar don’t mix on earth. In space, oil and vinegar mix,” says NanoRacks’s Jeffrey Manber (though your institution’s money–$50,000 and up, for 30 days aboard the ISS–might be better spent exploring more crucial scientific questions). “Gravity is a mask, it hides certain things, prevents certain things from taking place,” says Manber, who says he’s convinced some of the next great breakthroughs will occur with the help of space research. “Researchers love being able to play with variables.”

If you sign a contract through NanoRacks, they can send up a small lab-in-a-box on your behalf aboard American, French, Japanese, or Russian spacecraft. Astronauts then plug that miniature lab into a console on the space station; USB ports activate the experiment, and data points and video can be beamed down to your lab here on earth. “The astronauts love our hardware!” says Manber, in what should maybe be the promotional blurb of all future NanoRacks advertisements. “We call it the ultimate plug-and-play.” Here’s a video of what a NanoRacks-enabled space experiment looks like:


NanoRacks’ facility isn’t the only laboratory appealing to mad scientists that has cropped up on ScienceExchange. Need to subject a structure to Category-5 hurricane forces? ScienceExchange can hook you up with Florida International University’s Wall of Wind.

Or do you need to image an entire mouse’s brain at the sub-micron level? ScienceExchange can make the connection to 3Scan, a company commercializing the “Knife-Edge Scanning Microscope” first developed at Texas A&M’s Brain Networks Laboratory. Explains 3Scan’s Todd Huffman, the microscope “does 3-D reconstructions of cells and tissues using automated, high-throughput serial sectioning. It uses a diamond knife and fiber optic assembly to illuminate and slice tissue while imaging simultaneously with a microscope objective.”

Since ScienceExchange is something like the Airbnb of laboratories, do they worry about being rocked by scandal in the way Airbnb was earlier this year? After all, if you’re worried about your stuff getting trashed, do you really entrust it with a stranger in outer space, or in a violent “wall of wind”? “Yes, it’s something I worry about,” says Knox. ScienceExchange is tightly controlled, though, where Airbnb is open: “We check who a provider is, verify who they are, and that they have the ability to provide.” These concerns are independent to ScienceExchange, he adds, and exist any time a researcher entrusts another facility with her samples.

That raises another question: What is ScienceExchange’s added value? After all, couldn’t researchers go around ScienceExchange, straight to these labs, companies, or institutions? Yes, but they might never learn about these resources were it not for ScienceExchange; the startup also makes it extremely easy to set up an experiment with its 1,000 different service providers (ScienceExchange follows a sliding-scale algorithm to determine its cut of a transaction, never more than 5%). “Scientific markets are often hard to reach, and ScienceExchange is going to allow us to more easily reach out and set up collaborations with laboratories by making the markets more transparent and fluid,” says Huffman.

Put another way, people don’t dream of conducting experiments in outer space, until someone tells them to. Says Manber: “The amount of folks who wake up in the morning right now and say, ‘I want to use space as part of my reserach program,’ you can count on two hands. We want to reach out to the guy, the woman, the researcher waking up tomorrow and saying, ‘I’ve got this problem, let me go on ScienceExchange and see what facilities are out there.'”


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[Image: Screenshot from Weird Science via YouTube]


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.