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January 5, 2015

Lab software startup founded by Jackson Lab employees gets key $220K grant

Photo / Courtesy of RockStep Solutions
Photo / Courtesy of RockStep Solutions
From left to right: Chuck Donnelly, RockStep's CEO; Abigail Ames, director of technology; Carrie LeDuc, director of product development; and Kat Taylor, director of sales and marketing.

This may be hard to believe, but in the year 2015 many science laboratories still rely on pen and paper for recording results in research projects. It's not quite the future imagined by science fiction but a Bar Harbor-based lab software startup seeks to change that soon.

Founded by four former and current Jackson Laboratory employees, RockStep Solutions has received key funding for the development of its cloud-based mobile laboratory software system, called CLIMB, that seeks to revolutionize the way biomedical research is conducted.

The funding, announced Friday, comes in the form of a $224,000 Small Business Innovation Research Grant from the National Institutes of Health. In its review of RockStep's grant proposal, NIH said "this project could have transformative impact on the way the information workflow works in the laboratories. The application, the research team and the research environment are outstanding for the execution of the project."

Chuck Donnelly, RockStep's CEO and the former director of computational sciences at Jackson Lab, told Mainebiz over the phone Friday the funds will allow RockStep to build and test a prototype of CLIMB, which will run on computers, tablets and smartphones.

"This grant is a key component in providing us salary dollars to do this," he said. "Without the grant we would have been looking for other opportunities."

The idea behind CLIMB, Donnelly said, is to create "a live data ecosystem for research" that allows researchers to leverage "the real time value of those data." In other words, instead of having to transcribe data into a computer from handwritten notes days after collecting them, CLIMB will allow researchers to instantly input data into an app on their tablet or smartphone that will immediately become available through a cloud server.

Because many research labs still rely on pen and paper or computers located in other rooms for data collection, there can be quite a time gap, sometimes days or even weeks, for labs having the most-up-to-date lab results, Donnelly said. This can create a disconnect between the current status of, say, test mice, versus what it says in the research database.

CLIMB seeks to close that time gap "so the database actually reflects the real state of your research," Donnelly said. This will allow labs to create efficiencies and make faster findings that could have important implications and alter the course of a research project.

"Data have value in real time and people lose valuable science because they're not getting access to that real time data," he said.

Donnelly said the NIH funds will also allow the startup to apply for a second round of funding from the innovation grant program, which would help it prepare for commercialization.

But RockStep is hoping it will receive a development loan first from the Maine Technology Institute for commercialization purposes, so that the second round of NIH funding could be used to develop more innovative features for CLIMB, Donnelly said.

If RockStep receives the commercialization funding, Donnelly said the company could have the first commercial release of the product ready by this fall.

In the meantime, RockStep is looking for research labs interested in signing up for a strategic partnership program, which would allow the labs to receive an early version of CLIMB for testing and feedback purposes, along with the opportunity to make design suggestions.

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