The New PI

Assistant Professor at R1 Medical School

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How to Stretch Your Start-Up Dollars

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Image: Margaret D. Foster, Chemist/National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress (1919)

Editor’s Note: Here is the third column in a series on the experiences of being a new assistant professor in the sciences.

You are a newly minted laboratory head. The renovations are finally complete, and you cannot wait to get started with experiments. You were able to negotiate a sizable start-up package and you are ready to start spending it on equipment, reagents, and consumables.

As a student or a postdoc, I really did not appreciate that the price of almost everything in the lab is negotiable — at all times. If you enjoy shopping and bargain hunting, this will be a great time. If you hate having to deal with price negotiations, email this article to someone who works in your lab and have that person talk to the vendors and compare costs for you because smart choices now may extend the life of your lab down the road.

Science suppliers are looking to lure you in with introductory deals in the first 6 to 12 months after opening your lab. They hope that if you try their wares almost for free, you’ll get hooked.

Every company has a discount program for new labs, with massive savings that you should discuss with your local reps. The big distributors — VWR and Fisher— even have handy checklists of what you may need, and you can use them to develop your own shopping list. As you assemble it, you will realize how many different things you need. Then you compare discounts at different companies or, if you like bargaining, set a price in your head and see how low you can get the sales people to go: $500-$1,000 vouchers for future reagents with a $1,000 purchase! Two PCR machines for the price of one! A year of tissue-culture supplies at 60 percent off! An entire lot of your favorite antibody!

The savings will pile up very quickly. Some companies will give you a once-only massive discount while others will extend savings for several months, so consider carefully the timing of when you want to use the deals they’re offering to new labs.

Finally, take some time to walk the exhibit hall at your annual disciplinary meeting. “I’m starting a lab” is a surefire way to be surrounded by vendors offering discounts, giving you free trial reagents, and showing you their new toys. Plus you’ll get all the secret freebies for special customers.

Let’s go through some of the major categories:

Chemicals. Biologists often do not realize that there are specific grades of purity in the powders set by the American Chemical Society (ACS), with its “reagent” grade as the purest, while “laboratory” or “technical” grades are less pure. Whether you purchase reagent or laboratory grade for your lab may depend on what you need. Shop around, because higher grade does not correlate with higher cost. Rather, cost often depends on how much of a certain chemical the company sells, and other manufacturing and packaging considerations. For example, at Sigma Aldrich, 5 kg of sodium chloride could cost you either $166 (ACS grade, 99 percent pur.), $120 (bioreagent, cell-culture tested, 99 percent pur.), or $174.50 (molecular biology grade, 98 percent pur.). Or instead, if you look carefully, you could just buy the 10 kg bucket of the ACS grade, or twice as much of it, listed for $180.50 and going for half that when discounted for a new lab (just remember to keep the salt in the bucket very, very dry).

If you use pharmaceutical-grade chemicals, those may be cheaper from the manufacturer, since resale companies may need to repackage the chemicals, also compromising the pharmaceutical grade. I never thought that buying chemicals would hold such complexities, but there are a lot of savings to be had if you pay attention.

Consumables and supplies. In your first year in the lab you will develop a list of all the things you use every day — gloves, pipette tips, plasticware for cell culture, bottles, beakers — that fall under a category called consumables and supplies. The initial negotiation with your chosen supplier(s) is the time to set your discounted price in stone. In my own lab, once my staff and I decided which companies we liked, we developed a list of frequently ordered items and requested a discounted price quote for everything we needed from each company. Now we just renew that price quote every 6 to 12 months, depending on the supplier. That simplifies ordering in multiple ways. First, since you have to provide a quote number with your order to obtain the discount, you only have a couple of numbers to look up when you order. Most important, annual price increases are based on the initial discounted price negotiated when you started your lab so that you can keep ordering the same things well below list price.

Equipment. Equipment is, by far, the most expensive thing you will ever buy. My lab microscope cost as much as a Tesla sedan — and it’s just a standard run-of-the-mill fluorescent upright. You pay for quality and you have the right to take as long as you need to make your decision. Get companies to come in and demo as many microscopes as you want and ask them to extend the trial period if needed, because the right scope will put a smile on your face, and possibly some journal-cover images on your walls, for years to come. Often the demo equipment is for sale at discounted rates, and doesn’t have to travel all the way from Japan or Germany to come to you.

The relationship you develop with your reps can be long-lasting. Equipment sales people tend to be very technically proficient, too. We had someone who drove back into town with spare parts the Friday evening before a holiday weekend to get us out of a crisis.

The level and availability of technical support can make a difference in the long run. If the reps are local, technically savvy, and can stop by to tweak something, they will save you thousands in repair fees since an official site visit can cost $3,000 to $5,000. You have to factor the cost of the annual service contracts into the purchase price, also. Sometimes a foreign company is trying to enter a new market and it may give you big discounts if you agree to offer a testimonial.

If the equipment is not specialized — like refrigerators, freezers, microwaves — ask whether your university allows you to purchase from a regular household or commercial appliance vendor. A standard two-door refrigerator (42 to 45 cubic feet) retails for more than $10,000 from scientific distributors but only costs around $2,000 from restaurant-supply stores. The difference will pay for a whole lot of reagents you will store in that fridge, or for toys like this crazy propane Bunsen burner or personalized laboratory tape.

In the current stingy funding climate when grants can be few and far between, the more you can stretch your start-up funding, the better off your lab will be. And the best part is that you do not have to economize and buy subpar reagents and equipment, you just need to pay a bit of attention — and not be afraid to ask for a better deal — so that you can always have the very best.

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