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Zach Winn

Innovation

Software to Accelerate R&D

Startup Uncountable has developed a digital workbook to help scientists get more out of experimental data

Published: Monday, August 2, 2021 - 12:02

This story was originally published by MIT News.

Many scientists and researchers still rely on Excel spreadsheets and lab notebooks to manage data from their experiments. That can work for single experiments, but companies tend to make decisions based on data from multiple experiments, some of which may take place at different labs, with slightly different parameters, and even in different countries.

The situation often requires scientists to leave the lab bench to spend time gathering and merging data from various experiments. Teams of scientists may also struggle to know what the others have tried and which avenues of research still hold promise.

Now the startup Uncountable has developed a digital workbook to help scientists get more from experimental data. The company’s platform allows scientists to access data from anywhere, merge data using customized parameters, and create visualizations to share findings with others. The system also integrates models that help scientists test materials more quickly and predict the outcomes of experiments.

Uncountable’s goal is to accelerate innovation by giving scientists developing new materials and products a better way to use the data that drive decisions.

“It’s all about saving scientists from the bookkeeping they do today and allowing them to focus on innovation and chemistry,” says Will Tashman, who co-founded the company with Noel Hollingsworth in 2016.

Uncountable began by helping customers in the industrial chemical space but has expanded to work with companies formulating new battery materials, making polymers for 3D printing, and identifying promising drug candidates.

“Our goal internally is, ‘Can we make R&D more efficient by a factor of 10?’” Hollingsworth explains. “Can we imagine a world where instead of getting the Tesla battery that’s going to come out in 2032, you get it next year? That’s the world we want to eventually push to with our software.”

girlworkingonlaptopSoftware from the startup Uncountable helps scientists analyze experimental data and collaborate on projects. Credits:Image: Video screenshots courtesy of Uncountable and edited by MIT News

A winning team

Hollingsworth and Tashman played on MIT’s basketball team together, with both starting on the 2011–2012 team that won the New England Women’s and Men’s Athletic Conference championship.

During his time at MIT, Hollingsworth got excited about startups while interning at small companies. He also saw alumni, including Dropbox co-founder Drew Houston, speak about entrepreneurship.

After graduation, Hollingsworth joined sports analytics company Second Spectrum while Tashman joined Apple, but they continued playing basketball together.

“Playing basketball gave us a really close bond,” Hollingsworth says. “What led us to reconnect was this high level of trust you get when you play together on the same sports team for multiple years that’s just not there in a lot of other environments.”

The pair also brought on Jason Hirshman, a programmer from Stanford University whom Hollingsworth had previously worked with. The founders believed they could build a software platform to improve efficiency in the advanced manufacturing space, but they needed to learn more about specific problems customers were facing.

Tashman scanned the MIT directory for people who could benefit from their idea and ended up meeting several people that either became Uncountable’s first customers or introduced Uncountable to early customers.

One of those people was Chris Couch, who is the senior vice president and CTO of Cooper Standard, a global supplier of transportation and industrial components. Uncountable did its first pilot with Cooper Standard, and the company became one of Uncountable’s highest-profile early customers. Couch also suggested the founders look into using neural networks to improve the formulation and optimization of rubber compounds.

“We talked to him a lot about why it would and wouldn’t work, and that was really the impetus [for building Uncountable’s platform],” Tashman says. “So, using the MIT network and talking to really smart people in research and development leadership positions at formulation companies was very, very helpful.”

Uncountable started by helping companies use data around rubber formulation but quickly learned that teams formulating chemicals for consumer products, food, and the life sciences had similar processes and problems.

“The data would be in 1,000 different folders under 10 different names, potentially stored in labs across the world,” Tashman says. “[With Uncountable], it’s all in one place. We offer instant access to information in a very secured, controlled environment. With the data in one place, you can build reports, you can build filters, you can monitor lab activity, and you can use more advanced AI algorithms to try and optimize your experiments.”

The founders say the system dramatically reduces the time scientists spend combing data from different experiments and lets scientists see the correlations and formulas that others have already explored.

“There’s various studies showing the crazy number of experiments and trials that are redone because of poor documentation or poor sharing and collaboration,” Tashman says.

The centralized data-management system also allows companies to apply machine-learning algorithms to their data in new ways, and Uncountable has several custom models integrated into its system.

“If the data is in the right place and the right size, you all of a sudden unlock a lot more powerful mathematical and statistical tools,” Tashman says.

Speeding up research

Carbon is a 3D printing company that develops resins for consumer goods, automotive applications, and biotech companies. Founded in 2013, Carbon had been using Excel spreadsheets to manage R&D before adopting Uncountable’s solution.

Uncountable helps Carbon’s scientists save hours each week on data sharing, analysis, and in creating presentations for leadership. When a scientist joins a project, they can see exactly what formulations the team has explored, eliminating duplicate work and making it easier to identify areas where they can dig deeper.

“Uncountable helps us understand whether we’re exploring enough, what else we might try, and whether there are other considerations,” says Carbon scientist Marie Herring. “We get to that point faster, and it speeds up the whole R&D process.”

Carbon is one of several 3D printing companies Uncountable works with. As the founders have realized scientists face similar problems across industries, the company has expanded to work with teams developing energy-storage devices and plant-based foods as well as biotech startups and research hospitals. Another customer, Nohbo, is making dissolvable toiletries that could eliminate millions of tons of plastic waste created by hotels each year.

“To get to these greener, more sustainable products, there’s no magic wand,” Hollingsworth says. “The future isn’t discovered; it’s invented by these hard-working scientists we work with on a day-to-day basis. Getting to help all these partners, not just in one field but every field, has been really amazing.”

Reprinted with permission of MIT News.

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About The Author

Zach Winn’s picture

Zach Winn

Zach Winn is a journalist working in the tech, education, and healthcare fields. Currently he is writer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the Greater Boston area.