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NIST Announces Winners of Its First-Ever App Challenge

GAITHERSBURG, Md.—The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) has announced the winners of the Reference Data Challenge, the agency's first-ever app development competition. The contest was intended to spur the development of new ways to use NIST Standard Reference Data (SRD) with mobile devices. SRD are scientific and technical databases that cover a broad range of substances and properties from many different scientific disciplines.

For the challenge, NIST made six popular sets of SRD, including fundamental constants such as the speed of light in a vacuum and the ionization energies for neutral atoms, available to app developers. Despite the short two-month submission period, the challenge garnered 25 entries from developers across the U.S.

"I was really impressed with the creativity and hard work the app challenge participants put into generating fresh approaches to using NIST data," said Heather Evans, coordinator of the challenge. "I'm looking forward to building on the success of this challenge with more events in the future."

The Winners

First place: The top prize of $30,000 went to Kris Reyes from Meru Apps in Princeton, N.J. His app, Meru Lab Reference, allows users to quickly access NIST chemical species data with the tap of a near-field communication (NFC) tag, smart chips that are able to store digital information and share it with a smartphone. Reyes wanted to design an app that lets scientists, researchers and students access relevant NIST data in a way that minimally interrupts their workflow. His solution was to integrate NFC tags to allow multiple users in the laboratory to share and store information. The app provides multiple functionalities for search and display of NIST SRD.

Reyes had used NIST data (specifically the NIST Chemistry Webbook) many times in graduate school, but Meru Lab Reference is his first attempt at building an app.

"In my first research job after earning my Ph.D., I became involved in research that combined data analysis and experimental materials science to accelerate scientific discovery," Reyes said. "It's there that I became really passionate toward developing techniques to use data to help scientists in their day-to-day work in a practical, data-driven manner."

Reyes said that his company, and shortly thereafter his prize-winning app, were both born out of that passion, and he plans to use his winnings to further develop Meru Lab Reference.

Second place: The second place prize of $10,000 went to Zachary Ratliff (Waco, Texas) and Daniel Graham (Danville, Ky.) for their Lab Pal app. LabPal is a quick reference tool for students and professionals in science and engineering. Ratliff and Graham included features that make LabPal a "go-to" tool for scientists and engineers. It incorporates search features, a calculator, an infrared spectrum viewer and lab notes that can easily be shared into one app.

Third place: The third place award of $5,000 went to a team from MetroStar Systems, Reston, Va. Their app, ChemBook, helps users search for elements and compounds based on name, formula and even common terms such as moth balls or water. ChemBook combines NIST SRD with other open source data and incorporates informative YouTube videos and other media.

Honorable Mentions

In addition to selecting the first, second and third place winners, the judges identified two apps that they felt deserved special recognition.

Andy Hall's SciCalc9000 app is a scientific calculator that converts units and integrates NIST SRD in a format useful for scientists.

Annie Hui and Neil Wood of R-Star Technology Solutions created the Thermocouple Calibrator app, a handy tool for converting between voltage and temperature for users of these sensitive thermometers.

The panel of judges for the NIST Reference Data Challenge included seven experts with a variety of experience: Bibiana Campos-Seijo, editor, Chemical and Engineering News (C&EN), and vice president, C&EN Media Group; Vinton Cerf, vice president and chief Internet evangelist, Google; Stuart Chalk, associate professor of chemistry, University of North Florida; Robert J. Hanisch, director, NIST Office of Data and Informatics; Ian Kalin, chief data officer, Department of Commerce; Diana Ortiz-Montalvo, research chemist and co-leader, Postdoctoral Association, NIST; and Christopher Sloop, chief technology officer, Earth Networks.

The judges rated submissions based on four judging criteria: the potential impact of the app to help students and other technical experts use NIST SRD; creativity and innovation; implementation criteria such as user engagement and how well it works; and whether or not the app used at least one NIST dataset.

According to Evans, NIST plans to continue providing more of its SRD in formats that will enable app developers to better use its data.

As a non-regulatory agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce, NIST promotes U.S. innovation and industrial competitiveness by advancing measurement science, standards and technology in ways that enhance economic security and improve our quality of life. To learn more about NIST, visit

*This release was updated on Nov. 18, 2015, to correct the company name of Meru Apps.

Released November 18, 2015, Updated January 25, 2023