Liquid entrepreneurs want app to revolutionize scientific research

Idea inspired by faraway rainwater studies

HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. -- Jacob Shidler wanted to be a scientist, not an entrepreneur.

His grandpa Shidler owned a trucking logistics company. His dad owns a remodeling business. He grew up seeing how all-consuming business ownership could be.

“I had the option to take over my dad’s business, and I turned it down,” said Shidler, a graduate student in environmental science at the University of Cincinnati.

A trip to a volcanic island chain 8,700 miles from Cincinnati in May 2012 changed his mind about entrepreneurship. And now he and his friend, Caleb LeNoir, are working to launch a start-up company called Liquid.

The big idea behind Liquid is an app that researchers can use on an iPad, smart phone or other mobile device to gather scientific data more efficiently, saving precious time in the field and eliminating time-consuming clerical work later.

The iPad Inspiration

Shidler came up with the concept while researching his master’s thesis. His research was built around a 10-day trip to the Comoros Islands, also known as the Forgotten Islands, off the Eastern Coast of Africa. The vast majority of the people there collect rainwater from their rooftops to use for drinking, cooking, bathing and agriculture, and Shidler wanted to test the water quality to see whether different collection methods impacted it.

Before Shidler left, he was explaining to his father-in-law how cumbersome it would be to collect the data. His plan was old-school science: To bring notebooks and pens that could write in the rain, log all the data by hand and later type it into a computer to analyze it, just like he learned to do in graduate school.

Instead, Shidler’s father-in-law bought him an iPad. And Shidler rigged up a system to log information directly into the iPad along with pictures of each place he tested and audio clips to remind him of details.

The system was so much more efficient that he was able to collect 74 samples in 10 days –three times as many as his master’s committee members expected.

When he got back to Cincinnati, he prepared two presentations: one about the samples he collected and one about the iPad. He presented both to his committee.

“Nobody cared about the Comoros anymore,” said Shidler, 29, a Fairfield High School graduate who got his undergraduate degree in botany from Miami University.

“I gave over a dozen presentations on the iPad. My advisors all encouraged me to start this.”

'A Worldwide Useful Tool'

Shidler approached his friend LeNoir, 28, a software developer originally from Tennessee, and they started working on an app that would improve upon the system that Shidler had rigged up on his iPad.

They’re developing a data collection app – tentatively called Liquid Field Notes – that can help scientists analyze data immediately and send it to labs remotely.

“There’s a lot of problems in the science world that modern technology has not been applied to,” LeNoir said. “We want to be able to provide the ability to analyze data in real time and compare with other scientists.”

The Liquid technology has the potential to be a major breakthrough for scientists who do field research, said Miriam Steinitz Kannan, a regents professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Kentucky University who sits on Shidler’s master’s committee.

“That’s the future of data collection,” Kannan said. “The potential is huge.”

Not only would Liquid Field Notes save researchers lots of time, she said, it also could be used by so-called citizen scientists who see contaminants in local creeks or streams, she said.

“It becomes a worldwide useful tool,” Kannan said.

Launching With Help From UpTech

Now Shidler and LeNoir are working to develop the app with the help of the UpTech business informatics accelerator.

UpTech was launched in early 2012 by Northern Kentucky Tri-ED, Northern Kentucky ezone, Northern Kentucky University and Vision 2015, the regional planning initiative. It offers participating businesses six months of intensive business development help in everything from marketing and fundraising to market research and finding investors.

Liquid also will get up to $50,000 as part of its time with the program, which started Sept. 9. And at the end of six months, Shidler and LeNoir will have an opportunity to pitch their product to potential investors to try to secure more funding.

Shidler still wants to finish his research in the Comoros Islands, but he’s also committed to his new entrepreneurial path. And, he said, his dad couldn’t be happier.

“It must be in the blood, I guess,” Shidler said. “He’s really proud I’m pursuing entrepreneurship.”

This story is part of a five-day series, in collaboration with WVXU , examining the region's water technology potential, which could pump billions of dollars into the local economy each year. The series airs on WVXU and is being published on the week of Sept. 23 through Sept. 27.

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