A commuter uses the Uber Technologies Inc. app on a smartphone

Ashmita Das thinks of her company as Uber for scientists.Credit: Jason Alden/Bloomberg/Getty

In 2015, Ashmita Das started Kolabtree, a global platform that connects freelance researchers with companies looking for scientists. The London-based company says it now has 8,000 active users and has helped 3,500 businesses over the past 3 years. Das discusses her work, and criticisms about bringing science into the gig economy.

What is Kolabtree?

In essence, we’re the Upwork or Uber for scientists. We’re a platform where scientists work as freelancers and companies recruit them for a fee. A company posts an ad for a piece of work that a scientist can take part in, and scientists apply to work on that particular project. Of our ‘approved’ freelancers whom we promote to clients on the site, about 70% have a PhD.

How did the idea come about?

I started my career at Cactus Communications, a medical-communciations company, as a manuscript editor. I’ve had a few different roles since then, including working in product development, where I was looking for a data scientist to help build a custom algorithm for a project I was working on. I got in touch with a load of universities and it just didn’t happen — nobody went for it. It seeded this idea that it’s really hard to get in touch with a scientist if you want something done. That’s the problem we’re trying to solve. I went to the co-founder of Cactus Communications, Anurag Goel, with the idea. Cactus eventually helped to incubate Kolabtree.

What sort of work gets advertised on Kolabtree?

It’s really varied. Recently, we’ve seen a lot of cosmetics projects: there’s been this explosion in the boutique cosmetics business, and we’re seeing start-ups looking for formulation chemists to consult for a few days on how to make a new cosmetic. We’re also seeing a lot of food companies looking to speak with food scientists. Nowadays, you can’t sell a cupcake without the help of a researcher. There are companies looking for advice on how to develop home-made recipes to increase shelf stability, for instance.

Do firms look for scientists to do laboratory work for them?

Usually, companies aren’t looking for researchers to be involved in the lab. Rather, it tends to involve more problem-solving work. A company might say, “We’re developing a product; this is a list of the ingredients. The pH isn’t right. How do we fix it?” It’s the scientist’s job to have the knowledge and do the thinking to try to help them solve that problem.

Where do companies like Kolabtree fit in the changing world of work?

We’re at an intersection of a bunch of different trends. First is the move to freelancing work in general: more and more workers are going into freelancing because of the flexibility it offers and the choice of individual projects. Second, in academia there’s an oversupply of PhDs, and the number of tenure-track positions has gone down, so fewer scientists are able to take an academic route. Researchers are looking for something else to do. These two trends are what we’re trying to tap into.

Critics of the gig economy say it allows firms to replace employees with cheap labour. Does Kolabtree?

We’re very conscious of not being a ‘race to the bottom’ because of the nature of our freelancers and the professional, intelligent work they do. With Uber, for example, there’s a fixed pricing system. We don’t have those sorts of mechanics. Freelancers set their own prices and we don’t want them to feel de-valued. If a job is posted that doesn’t have the right budget, we try to get a client to up their budget, rather than encourage a freelancer to take the job at a lower price.