The Active Record By The Starter League

The Starter League, founded in 2011, is a small school in Chicago that teaches Rails, Ruby, HTML/CSS, and User Experience Design. The classes are intensive, three months long, one to three days a week, and taught in person.

Alumni Company Spotlight: HappiLabs

By Mike McGee on March 10, 2015

This is the second in a series of posts highlighting Starter League representation at MATTER, a new health-tech incubator located at the Merchandise Mart.

HappiLabs logo


I first learned about HappiLabs when Tom Ruginis was a student in our Spring 2013 HTML & CSS class. So I was happy (sorry, I had to) to hear that his startup is in MATTER's inaugural class! I caught up with him to see what was new.

What problem are you focused on solving at HappiLabs?

The big problem is a lack of transparency for information about lab supplies and equipment. This has a 2-fold effect on the industry and consumers (scientific and medical researchers):

1) Scientists are constantly overpaying because they don't know what a fair price is. They don't have a central site/resource to visit and find pricing data, and therefore suppliers have the advantage. This costs researchers around $50-$100 million dollars (per our estimates).

2) Scientists waste time searching the internet and interacting with customer service and sales reps to obtain pricing. They use Google and the very few other resources available. We estimate that scientists spend around 10 million hours per year searching for this information. Those are hours that could be spent doing research and advancing the health of our planet.

The other problem we're solving is creating a new job market (Virtual Lab Managers) for scientists where they don't have to work in a lab but can still utilize the knowledge and skills they have.

How did you identify this problem?

I worked in a cancer research lab as a Ph.D. student, so I understood the use of the products. Then I quit the Ph.D. and became a sales rep where I identified the problem as I was consistently charging very high prices for supplies, and my competitors were charging even higher prices! I'm a scientist at heart, so I was not cool with this.

I kept thinking, "Well if there was a Yelp or Kayak for lab supplies, scientists would spend their money much more efficiently and wouldn't have to spend hours per week shopping around." I quit the sales job and started developing HappiLabs.

I remember watching you present HappiLabs at our Starter League Demo Day. What has changed with HappiLabs since then?

Back then, we were working on the "Yelp for lab supplies." In fact, a few Starter Leaguers in the Spring class of 2013 built a decent MVP where you could review some basic lab supplies (pipette tips, PCR tubes, nitrile gloves, etc.). It's still accessible in the footer of our site, but not in use. It was very difficult to get scientists to write reviews, and we didn't have enough resources to make the UI excellent.

What changed? Like any smart startup, we pivoted. Instead of focusing on sharing pricing data and reviews on a website, which would save money, we realized that customers were also spending too much time on other tasks associated with the purchasing process. Too many hours were spent calling customer service and sales reps to get pricing info, product details, and shipping updates. Scientists shouldn't spend time doing this work.

We decided to create the Virtual Lab Manager to solve this problem. Today we offer a service that allows scientists to hire us hourly to do the purchasing in their lab (and other admin tasks like bookkeeping). Think of a personal assistant with a Ph.D. and who specializes in shopping for lab supplies and finance management.

Our tagline is: Focus on your science, let us manage your lab shopping and finances.

There are 59 other startups at MATTER, have you been able to create any partnerships since joining?

Not yet. I've been traveling a lot to San Francisco--land of biotech--and haven't been at Matter for more than two days/week. The rest of our team focuses on operations, not business development.

What's your vision for HappiLabs?

Every research lab in the world (academic and private) will hire a Virtual Lab Manager to do their shopping and purchasing (OK, realistically, I'll be happy with 15-25% of the market). We'll spend their money better than they could, and the researchers in the lab need to be doing more important things... like solving health problems!

Think about it, there are highly educated Ph.D. researchers, of which there are relatively few in the world, should they spend time searching Google for info about lab supplies or focus on their experiments? It's a no-brainer decision. The world will be healthier and happier if they are more productive with their experiments.

Smaller question, what's next for HappiLabs?

We'll continue to serve our current customers. And we look forward to finding new ones because, for every few customers, we create one new Virtual Lab Manager job for unhappy or unemployed scientists who want out of the lab.

We're also working on raising money and finding a strategic partner to build software to automate this process. These will help lower the cost to our customer (which is an hourly rate), and create an awesome virtual lab manager UX.

Beyond that, we continue to live our mission: to improve the happiness of scientists and the quality of their research.

If you want to learn more about HappiLabs impact on science research, check out this profile below.

Welcome to HappiLabs from HappiLabs.org on Vimeo.