A startup supported by academia: How Scienup relies on sharing economy to aid scientific research in EMs

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The term “sharing economy” is mostly associated with models similar to Uber and Airbnb, which mainly operate in the services sector. But what if the concept of the sharing economy was embedded into scientific research technologies?

Associate Professor of Operations Management at The American University in Cairo (AUC) Sherwat Elwan Ibrahim and founder of Scienup Yomna Saleh published a paper entitled “Is the sharing economy a valid option for scientific research technologies in emerging economies?”, looking into the defining characteristics of the sharing economy to explore opportunities and limitations in the scientific research ecosystem.

With the advancement of technology, it has become challenging for scientists and innovators to afford the necessary equipment and maintenance for scientific research technologies – so why not use a sharing model, specifically in emerging markets (EMs) where resources are limited, Saleh thought.

What is the sharing economy?
The sharing economy is mainly about exploiting idle resources by moving from ownership to access – namely having one resource that several people or communities use – based on a peer-to-peer exchange via an ICT component.

“Public ICT networks help to create collective accountability, mutual benefits and the chance to democratize access to products and services,” Ibrahim and Saleh write in their paper.

Major challenges facing scientific research include low rates of expenditure on scientific research facilities and lack of cooperation and coordination among academic and commercial research institutes.

The sharing economy is mainly about exploiting idle resources by moving from ownership to access

The sharing economy model in scientific research
In the field, insufficient resources have made a sharing model a viable option for development through research collaboration in equipment, facilities and intellectual assets. A similar model has already been used at the University College of London (UCL), for example, where an online research equipment directory can be accessed by the entity’s researchers. The user can search the database and contact equipment owners through the system.

However, according to the paper, this limits the resources that could be utilized as it only exists within the organizational border of UCL.

Scienup: Bridging the gap
While the study mentions other public-sector and entrepreneurial examples of how to use the concept of the sharing economy to advance scientific research, the one that stood out most and is most relevant to Egypt and the region is a startup called Scienup. The idea emerged three years ago, but only came to fruition three months ago.

In three months, Scienup passed the mark of 150 individual requests on its platform which includes 500 pieces of equipment that researchers seek to complete experiments and studies. Additionally, it onboarded six public and private research organizations.

The online platform both lists and moderates equipment sharing, connecting supply and demand in the scientific research field.

It targets emerging economy markets in the Middle East and Africa, with the aim of democratizing access to essential equipment for researchers and innovators, reducing duplication nationally and freeing up scarce resources for other investments.

One of the stakeholders interviewed in the paper suggests that “collaboration, although difficult to manage, is indispensable for quality research work”. A core facility managers is cited as saying: “In order to be financially sustainable, we need to reach users who can pay in exchange for our services; otherwise, we won’t be able to operate.”

Being a first-mover in the region, the startup is aware that uncertainty still exists given the track record of developed nations in spearheading scientific research, but based on their research, it is evident that the need is there. While commercial scientific service providers are mostly financially motivated, academics can be driven by research collaboration, academic recognition and sometimes financial rewards.

Establishing a sharing culture
However, a platform is not enough – the sharing culture among stakeholders and key players, as well as researchers, needs to be developed to facilitate the sharing process.

To overcome this, Scienup aims to create aligned incentives among academics. “In our field, people can be very protective,” Saleh tells Business Forward. “They feel like they want to stay ahead of competition by keeping everything a secret.”

The culture of sharing – according to Saleh – is best established through building a market-driven collaboration model and use cases to encourage more people to share.

“We want to leverage on the early adopters to use them as examples. Another thing we are planning is creating awareness about intellectual property so that people understand how it works. The main thing that goes through researchers’ minds is how to collaborate with someone while guaranteeing that one’s work will not be stolen,” she concludes.

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