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BioRender – Professional Science Figures (biorender.com)
185 points by Schiphol 27 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 75 comments

How times a' changing.

Just few years ago this would've shipped as a standalone desktop software that would've cost a one-time fee in low hundreds at most, but more likely under a $100. This is after all a vector editor with specialized clip art library.

This BioRender thing apparently costs over 400 per year at its cheapest. I realize that this obviously means that there's a demand even at these terms, but that's just... disconcerting to see for some reason. It's one of the cases when conversion from an installable product to an online service is done merely to justify recurrent monthly charges rather than for any actual user benefits.

Yup. Also, I've been reading the feature list at https://biorender.com/features, and seeing this:

  Store illustrations in our secure web-based application, forever
  Share illustrations with your lab, team or organization
  Add or remove team members as needed
  Secure, web-based portal that auto-saves your work as you go
my first thought was literally: I don't want this; that's what files are for. I don't want yet another collaboration platform, on which I have to manage users. I don't want yet another piece of data locked in to a random vendor of uncertain expected lifetime. These features are better handled by Dropbox/Box/other file syncing services.

This is not to deny that they did a nice and important job with these icons. They did. But they're also part of an annoying trend of "take what should be desktop software, move it on-line, slap on some 'collaboration' feature, enjoy recurring pricing and taking users' data hostage".

I tend to whine a lot about SaaSS and user control, but even ignoring that, I wish we could remove the platform part from SaaS(S). There's no user benefit from each vendor doing their own half-assed reimplementation of a shared file system. There's only increased account management headache, and loss of data ownership.

When academic teams collaborate on a paper or a poster, what do you think would be more useful- real-time WYSIWYG editor or "here's the file, make the changes you want and then let me know"? Github/Invision/Figma or file servers?

Having worked as a researcher, I can tell you it's the latter.


Because these teams have never used (eg) google slides to put together a presentation from 3 different continents

I have, and I’ll never go back to PowerPoint. Not coincidentally, my lab uses biorender all the time and it saves us an absurd amount of time. We often paste directly from biorender images into google slides. Yeah it’s pedestrian, but it works really, really well.

Ask the penny pinchers who look down their nose at this who funds them, how many R01s/R37s/equivalents they hold, etc. $400 for a decently run lab is jack shit. Unless you’re buying Rain-X by the gallon at Sam’s Club and silanizing your own float glass for gels, I suspect there are other expenditures that offer less marginal value. YMMV, but it probably won’t.

These guys are doing well because they solved a long standing problem that is worth a lot to a large group of people to make it go away. Every single signup I’ve seen went like this:

“How’d you put that together in 5 minutes?”

“We used biorender.”

“What’s biorender?”

“A web application that helps put biomedical illustrations together. If something is missing, you ask and they add it.”

(Couple days pass)

“Hey we just signed up for it too. Thanks!”

YMMV, again. But probably not.

Part of the concern though is that should biorender shut down, for whatever reason (or some other human factor comes into play), you may lose access to anything stored there. You are also entirely dependent on access to that service. This is in contrast to a desktop application - YOU control the data and access to the service. It would be completely doable to have collaborative features built into that too without needing a third party to be involved, just not as profitable.

It's bad enough that we have to deal with Elseveir - we really should not be encouraging stuff like this when it is not necessary as a general principle.

I download the illustrations (duh?). That’s the value. I don’t actually care about the service per se. Once the illustrations are in the paper/talk, the value has been realized, for my lab.

Nothing in this world lasts forever. I’m ok with that. Software undergoes bit rot, and services shut down. For us, the value is simply that we can communicate complicated experimental designs and results, clearly and effectively, without a lot of application training or other bullshit. That’s worth a LOT to my lab.

We release almost everything open source, and are militant open data proponents. We also like to remind people “if it breaks, you get to keep the pieces”. The value of this service isn’t in the pieces.

I think that online subscriptions come with a different set of expectations- I dont expect offline software to ever really get constant updates, work on any computer, and so on. Not have trouble transfering licenses when upgrading and so on. I think that I'm fine with this sort of shift in general as long as companies are actually delivering on those expectations, but I would def be miffed if i was paying monthly and the company stopped developing new icons/updating features etc.

As someone who sells "offline" software, I can tell you customers expect you to be 100% up to date on everything. New Windows feature? Howcome you're not using it!

And then they also want to use it on Windows 2K :)

I guess I would say I expect it in offline software, but I also expect it to be in the form of an upgrade to the new version of the software that i have to buy. Like having office 2007 installed and having to buy the new version of office when it comes out, vs office 365 where the new version is always part of the deal

Notice the example you used was 2007. Today's model is 365, everything is a subscription, which works great for offline software: no server to maintain except a static site.

Fair points, however part of the service is 3-7 day turnaround time on custom illustrations at no extra cost. Also the Student rate is 15$/month and you can sign up for one month, close your subscriptions and your figures and custom commissioned illustrations are still available to you. My lab just started using BioRender and so far so good.

Given that adobe creative cloud subscriptions are something like ~30 euro a month, and adobe illustrator is far better than this program it seems like it is a totally overpriced product

"Better" is entirely subjective. If you are a graphic designer, sure. But that isn't the target market here. Making any one of the figures that are showcased in Illustrator would take even an experienced graphic designer a heck of a lot longer and you would end up paying a lot more to hire a graphic designer to do your graphics than if you just utilized this tool for your medical research graphics.

There a lot of asset packs available for adobe illustrator. It would surprise me if there weren’t biomedical asset packs available. In fact in all likelihood this piece of software probably uses assets created in illustrator. I agree that this is targeted to a different audience, I just think that the price is off.

Why is this being down-voted?

It is a clip art application with a monthly subscription cost. It seems like a pretty on-the-mark comment.

They designed 20,000 specialized vector graphic icons. Do you think it's quick and/or cheap to do that?

It's not. But it's entirely orthogonal to this being an application vs. a Service as a Software Substitute.

This pricing is market-based though; if the market won't support it, the price won't exist. The parent's complaint is strange in that light: it's someone lamenting the loss of apparently vastly under-priced software, but framing it as unjust.

It may be so.Bu then again,JIRA is essentially an app that allows to drag a fancy digital post-it across 3 different stages..Yet somehow it is Atlassian booked 800M revenue last year...

JIRA is much more complex than that; unlike with BioRender, yours is an unfair simplification. Your argument can be rescued though by replacing JIRA with Trello.

Which makes it less, not more, useful. Zombie states, too many workflow possibilities tending to the baroque.

A lot of software that should reasonably be desktop is now web only. I wanted to download a copy of http://8bitworkshop.com so my son could try it at home where we don't have internet, but there is no download button. I could download the source code and run it locally via NPM, but that requires an internet connection to install properly.

I get why companies are doing this, they want easier cross platform, easier deployability of updates, easier to find devs who know the toolchain, easier to make it work on mobile. Everything's easier with the web, I guess. But is it worth it?

> I get why companies are doing this, they want easier cross platform, easier deployability of updates, easier to find devs who know the toolchain, easier to make it work on mobile.

You forgot it justifies having a recurring revenue model, which I'd guess is the main reason :D.

I’m intrigued by “home where we don’t have Internet” — is that a deliberate choice, a side effect of other choices, a happenstance?

It was a choice. I was tired of my family being disconnected from one another, getting nothing done, and being always connected to some electronic consumption device.

We got more done in the past 6 months with no TV, internet, or data plan, than in the past 6 years.

Also, social media usually tends to dull a person's enjoyment of life, turn them pessimistic and depressed, make them lazy and prefer endless consumption to hard work, and make them feel resentful of the people in their life. Even "harmless" time killer websites do this like reddit and imgur, and even HN.

I've seen all these affects and more for years on our family and many other families we know, and after getting rid of internet, TV and data plan, our life has turned around substantially.

The internet is a great resource and I use it when I need it, by going to the library and using their wifi. But when I don't need it, it just becomes a burden and a crutch if I have it with me at all times.

Good to hear it works for you. I'm honestly surprised, though. I tried something like this on myself 10 years ago, during my university years - but I quickly discovered that not having Internet at home makes it hard to to get anything done (computer science studies, though) and keep up-to-date with university matters. It also disconnected me socially from other students. I abandoned this after ~a year, because the only thing it did was a) making me almost live on the campus by necessity, b) making life slightly more annoying for other people in the house.

That was 10 years ago. I suppose today the social disconnection would be even more pronounced. So I have to ask: do you live in a small town or a large one? Are your kids pre-school/primary school aged? Are your and your spouse's professions outside of the technical or Internet-requiring fields?

When I split my time so that 9-5pm is work hours and outside that time is family time, whether doing chores, fixing up the house, running errands, or relaxing with the wife and kids, none of these seem to need the internet. But it sounds like that's not the situation you were in 10 years ago.

We live in a large suburb, and because of lack of constant electronic distractions, we're meeting our neighbors for the first time (albeit slowly, since nobody around here ever steps outside).

The kids have a great time at school, but they keep observing that all the other kids are surprisingly behind at pretty much every skill, and express surprise that they enjoy phone games where all you do is tap the screen to make a number go higher.

My wife stays at home raising our young children, and only really uses internet to communicate with the older kids' schools, which she can do with her iPhone anywhere that has wifi, including Walmart.

I'm the breadwinner of our family, doing software consulting work that often needs internet but often can be done offline. As long as I use the library's wifi for that aspect, I'm able to do my job just fine.

Honestly, if software wasn't my skill, I would be using the internet a lot less often, probably as much as I would check out a library book, and for the same reasons too. But software is what God made me good at, so it's how I need to support my family.

That said, I've installed a ton of things on our offline home computer that my kids find useful, such as PICO-8 and IntelliJ IDEA Community (so we can learn Java).

Thanks a lot for clarifying. What you've described is exactly a situation I thought going off-line wouldn't work in, so it's pretty educational for me that it works well for you.

> one of the cases when conversion from an installable product to an online service is done merely to justify recurrent monthly charges rather than for any actual user benefits

My impression is that that's pretty much all of the cases. Sometimes there happen to be benefits for the users, but that's mostly by coincidence.

For people in these fields, $400 is a drop in the ocean. The value one can gain from using it professionally could easily offset yearly subscription costs.

The market decides, if you don't like the cost of a high quality piece of software you don't have to pay for it.

The lock-in is pretty standard business practice now.

It's a specialised piece of software for biologists and doctors, I'm sure every industry has overpriced software.

The phrase you may be looking for is “vertical market” and it’s a phrase that makes MBA types salivate. An underserved and overcapitalized vertical market can support amazing profits.

Presumably they keep it updated. Also the 48 hour turnaround time for new icons seems like a valuavle service, not available with an installable

honestly, life-saver. I requested a few icons and asked for it to be done last minute... they actually pulled through! even consulted me about the accuracy. would recommend

This. I sent them some vector art that was already better than 99.9% of figures in quality review articles, and they made it better.

Nobody I know that has signed up for this service has regretted it for one second. (Contrast with Dropbox for Business, which is a horrifying overengineered pile of shit that actively subtracts value)

I get the impression that the engineer types are missing the point. Maybe it’s possible to produce a better product more cheaply and satisfy a greater segment of this market. But others have been trying that for 50 years and somehow biorender is the rising star in their market.

Perhaps, and I’m just spitballing here, perhaps the haters might benefit from reviewing a Hacker News Classic:


It’s not about the difficulty, or the effort, or the novelty of a service. It’s the value to a market that is willing to pay and underserved. Over and over again...

I wish you talked about the product itself instead of complaining about SaaS models vs desktop software models. But FWIW you're mistaken about the pricing. There exists a similar tool in the chemistry space called ChemDraw. It's desktop software to visualize chemistry. And the cheapest version costs over $1,500 [1]. The more expensive version costs nearly $5,000.

1: http://www.academac.co.il/cambridge.html

Coming from the field i have to object, that this software seems more like a Vektor based drawing program with some prebuild components and chemDraw is a huge ecosystem with tons of features.

I dont remember specialized software for medicine being exactly that cheap... But I see your point.

That's not specialized software for medicine, it's a clipart library (like we had on additional CDs for Paint Artist and the others) slapped on top of a basic vector editor.

It does not take anything from the quality of this product, but you can not really compare it to programs that have dozens of norms and verification processes to go through.

honestly, I thought it was just 'another' clipart platform at first, too but it seems like the CEO has some pretty solid experience in the field https://biorender.com/about/. Been using it for a while learned a bit in their newsletter about their icon production process. looks like they consult experts in the field and update the library daily. pretty cool!

digitalis_837, your account is very young and you are making lots of claims about the software. Can you disclose more identifying details about yourself and your relationship with the vendor, beyond merely a customer, if any?

Great product! But I almost quit your signup process. Forcing me to answer survey questions about my field and give my company name before I can see what your software can do makes me not want to sign up.

This makes me feel sad. Biology textbooks are full of these kinds of diagrams, and my impression from dealing with people who came up through normal biology training is that they are a hindrance to learning to think about biological systems in two ways:

1. They give the impression of a mechanical system like you might make out of an erector set as opposed to the chaotic, roiling mass that is the interior of a cell.

2. They prevent students from learning to think in terms of relations among observed quantities without overspecifying them.

Agreed, but I think the real problem is that the medium for communicating science is still basically a static PDF. Even if you use fancy microscopy to capture some of this roiling biology, the best you can do is link to a video file in the supplementary section of your paper, which few people will visit. Or to summarize the information in a bar graph.

This is so disappointing in this day and age where everyone at least has a computer, if not an iPad, capable of displaying video and animations in line with text.

And it would be great if BioRender would apply the principles laid out in "Stop Drawing Dead Fish" by Bret Victor: https://vimeo.com/64895205

On the other hand, biology is so complicated that you have to simplify things down to abstractions that let you communicate and reason about causal stories, and that's what these sorts of figures are good for.

Completely agree, but the clip-art approach doesn't help - it's often easier to understand casual relationships in terms of colored dots for partitions or very basic parameterization like node size in a graph, than to with clip art of tiny livers or brains.

Many of the more successful abstractions seem like they would make for extremely fun games. I've seen a few Fantastic Voyage! bio-themed videogames but they are usually either stupid memory games designed to teach technical terms, recycled space invader games with bacteria clip art, or simulations like FoldIt that are fun puzzles but don't really capture the dynamism and system behaviors that make biology so interesting.

If you'll forgive me venting my spleen, I really really want a game that lets me run the immune system. I don't need it to look like the inside of a bio textbook, I need it to model the information-production-distribution-processes and their strong resemblance to dynamic wargaming.

+1 would like to see this game too.

As a medical student, however, I can vouch for the utility of clip art in visualisation. You get delivered so much visual information that if there is coherence to it, you have more chance of processing it correctly.

I'm soooo happy to read this. I am very interested int eh dynamics of social networks and spend a lot of time abusing software from the bioinformatics fields to try and model behaviors in online ecosystems. In the process I've gotten quite interested in cell biology and the whole field seems like such a weird mix of hard data and hieroglyphic stories.

Levels of abstraction. I agree that there should be more exposure to the roiling dynamics of it all. From the high-fidelity simulations I've seen, you should think of a large macromolecule more as a tumbleweed or raft of seaweed that is being bombarded by water than as something made out of rigid pieces.

Yup. My school-acquired view of cells was always of somewhat squishy, mostly empty structures. It wasn't until recently that I learned they're all densely packed bags of molecules, shaking like crazy, and in which a lot of functionality depends on random walk making everything eventually bump into everything else.

One of my favourite videos: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4Z4KwuUfh0A

This is amazing - I wish I had this a few weeks ago when I was making a presentation. Does anyone know if images made when on a paid plan would be usable for commercial/publication purposes forever? Or is is only licensed for as long as you have a subscription? I tried to find that on the website but I might just have been missing something obvious, or maybe theres some usual legal standard about how this sort of IP licensing is done by default?

It’s in their TOS. The answer is more or less forever:

“Standard Commercial License: A BioRender Standard Commercial License is provided to all paid industry accounts allows you to use our Asset(s) anywhere in the world, and the license never expires.

You may use the Asset(s) in websites, print, presentations, publications, social media sites, marketing and advertising material, broadcasts, and for internal communication. However, you may not share or distribute the Asset(s) in any way that would let others use the Asset(s) without licensing it themselves.”

So we wouldn't be able to photo ship in a diagram into a bigger diagram later and would need to make it not downloadable if we post diagrams on our website? What if someone screenshots it from a journal publication?

If I had to guess, I'd say the intent behind it was "don't produce content which you then license out for re-use by third parties", not "you must make it physically impossible for third parties to re-use the content, even if they're willing to infringe copyright".

>However, you may not share or distribute the Asset(s) in any way that would let others use the Asset(s) without licensing it themselves.”

What does that imply, a watermark on every powerpoint slide?

Not explicitly but in their FAQ: "...upgrade to one of our subscription plans in order to attain publication/commercial rights for your BioRender images." Presumably that means permanent licensing of some kind is included if you pay for the right plan, but need more info.

Have these people ever seen an actin filament?! This is an outrage!


That's Actin (simplified 5). Try Actin (filament):


That's a good picture for the ultrastructure nerds.

But as a reformed cell nerd, my beef with the diagram i linked to is that the structure is wiggly, implying that it is slack and flexible. Actin isn't. Whenever you see actin filaments in a cell, they're part of a structure that is either under tension, and so is made of long straight bits, or compression, and so is lots of short straight bits anchored to something.

EDIT Here is a lovely picture showing the actin in cancer cells growing on a glass slide:


The actin next to the slide is red, and the actin on the top of the cell is purple. Around the edge, you have filopodia and lamellipodia, small compression structures poking outward from the cell. In the left half, you have stress fibres, tension structures anchored in adhesions on the bottom of the cell, concentrated near the edge, and reaching up into the cell body. I'm not certain what the little scribbles making up the crown on the cell's head (around the purple blob) are, but i think they're little flaps sticking up out of the cell which are involved in pinocyosis - compression structures like the lamellipodia. Bottom-rightward of the purple blob you can see a cell-cell junction, a sort of vague line with perpendicular stress fibres terminating in it. The little dots are probably associated with vesicles (not sure if those are in tension or compression, actually).

Aren't you conflating actin (a protein) with actin filaments (a polymer/superstructure made up of many individual actin units)?

I'm talking about actin structures. I believe the icon i linked to is intended to depict an actin structure. If it's intended to depict a single molecule of actin, it's even worse!

No chevrons? I am disappointed.

You can tell which way round an actin filament is by labelling it with fragments of myosin molecules, which bind to it in a very particular way, and then looking at it really, really closely. People describe the appearance as arrowheads or chevrons, although to me it looks like ears of wheat:


From that, there is a convention of drawing actin filaments with chevrons, such as in this paper by my old supervisor:


if i still worked in the lab, i'd be all over this product, even if it's pricey.

everyone has had to sit through powerpoint presentations with terrible clip art where a well-meaning colleague tries to explain their new hypothesis and is constantly stymied by not having fruitful visual aids. and let me tell you from experience, you feel just as bad when you're the one making the presentation.

Nice! Are there any open source or cheaper alternatives to these? At $39 a month, this is more expensive than Microsoft Office! For students, that is almost impossible to cough up for intermittent usage.

If you are looking for something free that is specifically for pathways, I worked on a project called PathWhiz (http://smpdb.ca/pathwhiz) that might fit the bill. It also has the advantage of structuring the data into BioPax/SBML.

Does anyone else get the feeling that there is a tacit assumption that clip art is frowned upon when making figures? Coming from a neuroscience background, most papers I have seen have diagrams specifically designed for said paper.

I'm all for this being relatively expensive if it gives them the wherewithal to invest in transitioning to these diagrams being semantic and eventually drive simulation models.

Looks great. Too many questions on signup -- I fell out of the funnel.

Was this built on some underlying web-based vector graphics editing library, or did they build the whole app from scratch?

Super cool.

The pricing seems a little bit low to me. Considering the target customer and the quality of the competition, I suspect you could charge more.

That being said, I could see how this may be deliberate and you have ambitions of addition upsell or consulting revenue.

Just point this out because it's a personal weakness of mine to not price my offerings high enough, even when it's obviously underpriced to outside observers.

Awesome product!

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