There’s an app in the works for that: Northeastern student developing program to connect researchers and study participants

A person types on a laptop that displays black text: "Exploro."
Alexis Musaelyan-Blackmon, a third-year data science and biology student, won first place and a cash prize of $4,500 in the fall 2023 Husky Startup Challenge for her business pitch of Exploro — an online platform that will help academic researchers recruit participants for their studies. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

Alexis Musaelyan-Blackmon has a lot of passions and is always working on a side project.

From publishing a poetry book to starting a business, she sets a goal for herself, she says, and follows through with it.

“I have fun,” says Musaelyan-Blackmon, a third-year data science and biology student. “It’s a way for me to creatively express myself.”

This fall she has been focusing on developing a new business idea. While the venture is still in the beginning stages, Musaelyan-Blackmon recently received a major confidence boost when she won first place and a cash prize of $4,500 in the fall 2023 Husky Startup Challenge, Northeastern’s official venture incubator and a startup pitch competition.

Every semester, the Husky Startup Challenge takes student entrepreneurs through bootcamps, where they learn about various aspects of creating a venture from ideation to prototyping. At the end of the program, student founders compete in the Demo Day, presenting their business ideas in two-minute pitches in front of a larger audience.

Musaelyan-Blackmon is developing Exploro — an online platform that will help academic researchers recruit participants for their studies. Recruiting an adequate number of participants, she says, is a crucial aspect of research, which advances scientific discovery or improves health care.

She has been on both sides of this process, she says, as a researcher and as a study participant, and it is currently confusing and tedious for both parties. Researchers, for example, have to do mostly manual marketing of the study by distributing posters, putting them up on community bulletin boards and posting on social media or Craigslist. People who want to participate in research don’t always know where to look for such opportunities or have to share personal information to be able to stay in touch with researchers.

Head shot of Alexis Musaelyan-Blackmon.
Alexis Musaelyan-Blackmon, a third-year data science and biology student at Northeastern, says recruiting an adequate number of participants is a crucial aspect of research, which advances scientific discovery or improves health care. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“This whole process could be streamlined if there was a centralized platform to post all these studies so that researchers can easily connect with people that are applicable for their studies based on their demographics,” Musaelyan-Blackmon says. “And people that want to participate in research can easily find studies that they are eligible for.” 

Clients will be able to use Exploro first via a website, Musaelyan-Blackmon says, and later through a mobile app. The platform will allow researchers to post ads about their studies; potential participants will be able to review details of studies, find the one they are interested in, apply, go through a screening process, sign consent forms, register for the study, conduct all communication with researchers and leave post-study feedback. Researchers may also choose to share the results of the study with the participants or offer some insights.

Exploro doesn’t really have adequate competitors, Musaelyan-Blackmon says, as currently available solutions are either just marketing platforms or solely focused on clinical studies. Exploro will mostly focus on academic research.

Musaelyan-Blackmon says that she would really like to integrate a machine learning component into Exploro in the future. This way the algorithm would analyze participants’ profiles and previous studies they have participated in and provide the best match for a study, improving the success rate of the recruitment. Another feature could be an analytics tool for researchers so they can see how many views their study is getting. 

“But for the initial prototype, I don’t want to overcomplicate [things],” she says. “I just want to show the very basics of how participants and researchers would be matched.”

Musaelyan-Blackmon grew up just outside Washington, D.C., in Northern Virginia. In high school she had a small business teaching children to play the piano.

She says she gets her ambition from her mother, who had been a mathematician and a programmer in Armenia before she immigrated to the U.S. 

“As a child, I would see how she had to start from the bottom and work her way up, working multiple jobs,” Musaelyan-Blackmon says. “Ever since then, I’ve also been very ambitious, always working on projects. And I think the most important part is that I actually enjoy it.”

She entered Northeastern as a pre-med student then quickly discovered that she didn’t want to go the medical route but still wanted to be able to make an impact on health care. So she added a data science major to biology. 

“Ever since then, I feel I’ve been a lot more passionate about what I can do,” Musaelyan-Blackmon says. “ The integration between data science and biology gives me access to make a direct impact on health care with technological components.” 

Her focus has been on machine learning and artificial intelligence, she says, because these technologies can advance health care.

Earlier this year she developed another venture — Dephened — an AI cybersecurity company and a software program that will detect and defend against would-be cyberattacks in real time, by using an algorithm that continuously monitors an individual’s network traffic.

That business idea earned her a 2023 Women Who Empower Innovator Awards and a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security, where she now works part time. 

When Musaelyan-Blackmon thought of Exploro, she says, she joined the Husky Startup Challenge to take advantage of its bootcamps. Whenever she had time, she would go to IDEA, a student-led venture accelerator, to talk to others about her venture idea and get different perspectives. She also attended events featuring various speakers put up by Mosaic, a Northeastern network of student-led organizations that empower the university’s entrepreneurship community.

Until recently Musaelyan-Blackmon worked on Exploro alone. She’d heard that some other Northeastern students — Jules Grelot and Edgar Sze — were trying to start something similar, she says, and contacted them for possible collaboration. 

After meeting, Musaelyan-Blackmon, Grelot and Sze decided to merge their efforts.

“We might as well collaborate, using all of our different perspectives to solve this pressing issue,” Musaelyan-Blackmon says. “We turned out to be a pretty diverse team.”

While Grelot focuses on the business side and venture capital, Sze is good with health care regulations and HIPAA compliance.

The three of them are still exploring the best business model for their startup. To monetize the platform, Musaelyan-Blackmon says, they are considering either charging a percentage fee based on the compensation a study participant gets or offering contracts to various partner institutions doing research based on their use of the platform.

Currently, Musaelyan-Blackmon and her co-founders are working on forming partnerships with different research institutions, conducting customer interviews and starting to grow Exploro’s user base. Once they secure the user base, she says, they can start talking to venture capitalists about raising money. 

She is hoping to create the initial prototype of the platform in January and finish a working prototype by March or April.

“Once we do build credibility, it would allow for more institutions to want to use our platform,” she says. “That’s why we want to start off with Northeastern and expand to the Boston area colleges nearby, and then after that expand outside of Boston and throughout the U.S.”

By the fourth quarter of 2024 Musaelyan-Blackmon expects more than 500 institutions to be using Exploro and to have about 500,000 of potential participants in its database.

Alëna Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on X/Twitter @AlenaKuzub.