Home Science How a simple idea to share lab materials led to a circular-economy movement in science

How a simple idea to share lab materials led to a circular-economy movement in science

How a simple idea to share lab materials led to a circular-economy movement in science

Garry Cooper started ferrying equipment between labs as a graduate student.Credit: Andrew Halliday for Rheaply

In 2016, Garry Cooper set up Rheaply, an online platform for sharing laboratory materials and other items of value that would otherwise go to waste. It is now used by universities, businesses and government agencies. Cooper, whose background is in neuroscience, is chief executive of Rheaply, based in Chicago, Illinois, and an advocate for the circular economy and sustainable entrepreneurism in science. He tells Nature why labs have a responsibility to share resources.

How did the idea for Rheaply come about, and why?

I worked in two different laboratories during my PhD at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Both were huge, with an awful lot of forgotten stuff in freezers, refrigerators, on a back shelf or sometimes on the hallway floor. This stuff included primary and secondary antibodies, restriction enzymes, buffers, serums, glassware, chemicals, computer monitors and electrical cords, and also software licences, some of which were never used. Other, smaller laboratories that were not as resource-rich could have been using those things. It occurred to me one lunch break when chatting with some graduate students from other labs that we could simply share items we were no longer using: it would help them, and we wouldn’t have to throw it away.

That conversation sparked my passion for thinking about how we can use what we have in science to drive more research, sustainably. Rheaply’s mission is to make science cheaper and more efficient. By pooling resources, we can conduct more research with less funding. But on top of this, we have a responsibility to reduce waste, especially as scientists who are pushing climate-change awareness; we should be reducing waste in our own practice as well.

I started by pushing a cart around my university medical school with unwanted materials and distributing them to other labs that could use them. After I graduated, I turned this into a venture-backed start-up firm, Rheaply, through which users can buy or sell items. This also reflected some of the feedback I had from the community: people didn’t always want to give valuable items away for nothing. The company makes a profit by licensing our reuse and circular-economy software to enterprise clients under contract, and for our external marketplace transactions, we take a fee for processing payment. I didn’t have any contacts in the world of business, so I started by asking those around me for feedback, financial advice and mentorship.

What barriers prevent laboratories from being more environmentally sustainable?

Science is still competitive. I think there is an attitude of: “I don’t want someone to publish something before me, I don’t want somebody to get an intellectual-property edge on me.” Sometimes that kind of thinking can trickle down into hoarding or warning others off things we should definitely be sharing. Nobody gets a competitive edge by sharing sodium chloride, pipette tips or antibodies.

hand holding a mobile phone with focus on the Rheaply app on the phone screen

Rheaply is an app through which users can buy or sell items.Credit: Andrew Halliday for Rheaply

Lab culture has always been insulated; it’s only in the past 40 years that things have become much more collaborative. As we transition out of our silos towards more collaborative science, the very next thing we should think about is how to share our resources. If we can share our bedrooms with strangers through Airbnb and our back seats through Uber, why can’t we share things in the lab that probably aren’t even ours — that were purchased by the government or the university?

What practical steps can laboratories take to become greener?

With Rheaply, we started with antibodies. In a typical biological lab, when someone wants to try some type of tagging experiment using an antibody, unless they’ve done the experiment before, they don’t necessarily know which antibody will work. So some labs will buy several different types and experiment to see which one works the best. That means they probably have at least two or three antibodies they’re not going to be using much of.

But some labs can’t afford to order that many to try out. They shouldn’t have to. If there’s visibility, if everyone knows where things are and what’s available, you end up with a reduction of procurement costs overall. Why order materials and wait two weeks for them to arrive when there’s some going spare next door? The person you share the item with could become a future collaborator. And, most important, the waste goes away, feeding the circular economy.

Calculating high-level carbon costs and waste costs helps researchers to understand our climate impact. A study by University College London last year estimated that laboratory facilities accounted for nearly half of the university’s carbon emissions1. Carbon-emissions metrics should be considered as important to the quality of a scientific study as its methods and results. If scientific publications also required contributors to list the estimated embodied carbon of their submitted research, labs would have greater incentive to adopt more sustainable practices.

What is your vision of the future?

On average, research labs consume four to five times more energy than similarly sized commercial facilities. The science community needs to care about climate change not only because we are all vulnerable to its impacts, but because we are also part of the problem.

I’d like to see a world where labs would have inventory systems that ensure stable supplies of research materials and equipment and support zero waste. Scientists would design research and experiments with the lowest carbon footprint possible.

Sustainability doesn’t have to be a big investment, it’s just the sharing economy brought to research. We’re already doing it with all kinds of data, for instance making genomic databases open to researchers with fewer resources and funding, which in turn is enabling more ideas to flow and greater innovation to take place to solve some of the world’s biggest health challenges.

There’s no reason why we can’t adopt this mindset and apply it to physical resources, too.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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