protocols.io Spotlight: A conversation with Lenny Teytelman, co-founder and CEO of protocols.io
Author: Diana Curcio
Lenny Teytelman, Irina Makkaveeva, and Alexei Stoliartchouk launched protocols.io in 2014.
Lenny has over a decade of computational and experimental biology experience. He did his graduate studies at UC Berkeley, and it was his struggle with correcting a published research method as a postdoc at MIT that led him to co-found protocols.io. Lenny brings to protocols.io a strong passion for open access, sharing knowledge, and improving research efficiency through technology.
Learn about the history and vision of protocols.io from co-founder and CEO, Lenny Teytelman.
In a sentence, what is protocols.io?
Lenny: It is a platform for collaborative method development — both for researchers needing secure and private collaboration, and for those aiming to share their knowledge publicly.
What makes protocols.io different from other scientific platforms?
Lenny: The experimental protocol is at the heart of the Scientific Method, and we are uniquely focused on improving the organization, development, and sharing of these protocols.
protocols.io was launched in 2014. What was the ‘aha’ moment that inspired you to come up with the idea to start protocols.io?
Lenny: It was a January 7th, 2012 phone call from Alexei Stoliartchouk (co-founder of protocols.io). I still vividly remember standing in the line of the Cambridge Trader Joe’s, preparing for my daughter’s second birthday party when Alexei called to ask, “Can we build a useful app for biologists?” My initial response was, “I am not sure how the phone can help on the bench; it can’t pipette for me.” But 10 minutes later, as I walked out of the store, I called him back and suggested an app that would let me load in a protocol that I am using in an experiment. Like a cooking checklist to see where in the experiment I am, what I’m doing next, and to record any notes or changes to the protocol on that day.
That was the seed, but the ‘aha’ moment happened three weeks later. It was inspired by my experience as a postdoc, where I spent the first year and a half correcting a single step of the single-cell microscopy method that I was using. The change sounds tiny — literally, 5 microliters of a chemical instead of one and one hour incubation with it instead of fifteen minutes. But it took a year and a half for me to get this working, and at the end of it, it’s not a new method; just a correction of something previously published. It’s not a stand-alone new paper. So, I get no credit for this change and any other researcher using this previous technique is either getting misleading results or has to spend 1–2 years rediscovering what I would love to share with them.
Walking home after that day at the lab, I called Alexei and asked, “If we did build this app and people were using it to record their protocols and changes to them, could we give them a ‘share’ button to convey these corrections and optimizations to other scientists?”
What would you be doing if you never started protocols.io?
Lenny: I still love research and teaching, so I would most likely be an academic geneticist right now. I was about to start applying for professor positions right when I had to choose between continuing in academia or leaving it to do protocols.io full time. This was, in fact, the hardest decision for me in the whole history of the company, as I was committing to one path or the other.
What was the first version of the platform like — and what was the same or different compared to the most recent?
Lenny: The vision and mission haven’t changed much, but the design and functionality of the platform have been improving nonstop since the launch in 2014. A fun snapshot of where we were is in our Kickstarter video from 2014.
Possibly the biggest change since the launch is the expansion beyond the life sciences. We initially expected protocols.io to be most relevant to experimental researchers working in the laboratory or doing field studies. We were surprised by community requests to add support for computational methods, way back in 2014. We have since added support not just for that but for all research methods — welcoming protocols in psychology, devices setup, teaching, clinical trials, chemistry, physics, humanities, and more.
What was the most surprising feature you had to build that you would have never predicted ahead of time?
Lenny: I personally did not appreciate just how much attention and work would go into making protocols.io the secure platform that researchers require and that it is today. One thing I could have never predicted is an elegant algorithmic solution from Alexei to prevent abuse of protocols.io collaborator invitations by spammers.
Explain to those who do not know — what is the meaning behind the well known protocols.io raccoon logo?
Lenny: So many good reasons to have them as our logo!
- They’re curious like scientists.
- Their name actually includes “protocols”. The scientific name of the North American raccoon is Procyon lotor. Rearranged, that’s “Protocol rony”. I have no idea what “rony” is, but that’s still cool!
- Raccoons have 5 digits and amazing manual dexterity.
- As for foraging — more research is needed to determine whether graduate students or raccoons are better at it, but both clearly excel in this art.
In regards to the science industry as a whole, what challenges do you face as a co-founder now, that did not exist when you started protocols.io in 2014?
Lenny: Certainly, 2020 itself has obviously been an outlier year with COVID-19. The shutdowns, diversion of resources and energy into COVID-related planning and research, and budget crises across universities — it’s an extraordinarily challenging year. With that said, the pandemic has also underscored just how important open and reproducible science is; how much the sharing and collaboration among researchers can speed up progress. I hope a long-term consequence of the pandemic is a more open and collaborative research enterprise.
What milestone are you most proud of so far?
Lenny: I know we are on the right track because there are tens of thousands of protocols viewed by many thousands of researchers every single day.
What is one thing you wish you knew at the beginning of this journey as a co-founder of protocols.io that you know now?
Lenny: There are so many things I didn’t know, so many mistakes, so much to learn! I’m still learning every single day and it’s honestly hard to pinpoint just one thing I wish I knew. Co-founding protocols.io has been quite the educational experience — like getting another Ph.D., but with even more stress and ups and downs.
Where do you see protocols.io in five years?
Lenny: I am looking forward to the point where we start integrating directly with laboratory equipment like centrifuges, waterbaths, and even pipettes. This would be so powerful in helping scientists to avoid mistakes and work more efficiently!