Many startups emerge as a solution from a founder’s own experiences with a problem. This was the case for Chapel Hill-based startup LabMojo, co-founded by UNC juniors Michael Marand and Jonathan Segal.
As a chemistry student, Marand had a tough time searching for research labs he might like to work at over the summer.
“I realized that the search process to find a research lab was really slow and also pretty ineffective, meaning I generally feel like if the perfect lab was out there for me, I might not even come across it and realize,” Marand said. “So with that problem in mind, that’s when I came up with the idea to compile all the relevant decision criteria into one database and just make it searchable and filterable.”
In March, Marand went to Segal, a computer science major, to join in the LabMojo endeavor, which is now part of the current Launch Chapel Hill cohort.
Launch Chapel Hill has been instrumental in helping the LabMojo team step back and refocus on their goals, Marand said.
LabMojo already has 72 universities, including UNC and Duke, in the database and hopes to begin partnering with universities who will pay as partners.
Originally, LabMojo intended to sell its service to students, but a conversation between the co-founders and a university researcher marked a turning point for the startup. The researcher told Marand and Segal that universities invest heavily in recruiting new students and would likely pay to be included on LabMojo.
On the LabMojo website, users can search through the database of 1,800 research labs through different criteria including state, school, h-index (the reputation of the principal investigator), number of publications, number of citations, lab size and grant funding. This simplifies the search process, aiming to help students who plan to complete PhD programs in the sciences.
From talking with PhD students, the LabMojo founders found many would join labs and the fit wouldn’t be right, leading to burnout or even dropping out.
“We can help combat this problem of PhD student burnout by putting people into labs where they feel both comfortable and motivated, doing work that they really care about,” Marand said. “They really know they’re making a difference, which sort of lights their fire, gets them coming in every day, and therefore combats burnout. Also we’ll promote their mental health for these students, because they feel like they’re making good career progress. And they know at the end of their huge eight-year PhD time commitment, they’re going to have the career opportunities that they want.”
LabMojo’s service can also eventually impact national research output, Marand said.
“During COVID-19, I think it’s really clear how important research is to not just the U.S., but the whole world, how important it is for us to be productive in that realm,” Marand said. “And we hypothesize that if we can help get students into the right lab for them, we’ll help develop better scientists and therefore enhance the research output of our country as a whole.”
Having all this research lab information in one searchable database also fosters more environmentally friendly recruiting by university departments, who often mail out large amounts of brochures and flyers.
Departments also previously recruited by holding huge conventions where students could see if they would be a fit for a research lab. The pandemic has dramatically changed the possibility of holding these events, increasing LabMojo’s value for students and universities even more.
“The problem is, that can’t really happen right now,” Marand said. “And we don’t know when that will be able to happen again. So I think empowering students with as much information as possible—remotely—to allow them to make the best decision for them, leading into this huge eight-year time commitment, is going to be really important for the coming years.”