How ResearchGate plans to turn science upside down

Most startup founders dream of being the next Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg. Ijad Madisch, the co-founder and CEO of science network ResearchGate — a five-year-old service that has just announced a new round of venture funding — has rather different ambitions.

“When I first met [board member and partner at Benchmark] Matt Cohler, he asked what I really wanted to do,” he says.” I explained that my goal is to win a Nobel Prize.”

And he’s not kidding. The Harvard-trained virologist and computer scientist put a fast track medical career on hold in order to concentrate on building a website that he hopes can change the face of science. The reason is simple.

“I was on my way to becoming a professor, I’d published a lot,” he tells me, speaking from the company’s headquarters in Berlin. “But I noticed that I wanted more. Sure, I could be changing one discipline, but I wanted to change more than that… and I think if you can make it easier to share research, then it can change the world.”

In the simplest terms, ResearchGate is referred to as “Facebook for scientists” — a social network where professional researchers can share their work, communicate with each other and ask questions. But because it focuses on sharing knowledge, rather than activity, it’s probably got more in common with the likes of Quora or Stack Overflow.

And it’s proven very popular, with 1.4 million users from around the planet, sharing ideas and talking to each other about their work in fields from biology to physics to social science. By asking questions of each other, scientists are able to identify the academics who can help them, and perhaps avoid constantly reinventing the wheel.

“People tend not to share information on experiments that didn’t work,” says Madisch. “It means we end up making mistakes that other people have made already.”

The ability to learn from each other is what has driven ResearchGate’s popularity — and that popularity is something that has convinced investors including Founders Fund, which has just formally announced its participation in a series B round. Although the amount of money is not being disclosed, it comes on top of previous funding from the likes of Benchmark and Accel.

They all see value in a service that can capture the collaborative trend in a huge industry that — by and large — remains stuck in silos.

Online collaboration in science may still be in its infancy, but it is a powerful, growing trend — driven by the same technologies that underpin social networking and business collaboration. In a story last year, I spoke to several people who were at the cutting edge of ‘open science’, a loose movement trying to break down some of the barriers and take advantage of the online tools now available.

The internet, now an indelible part of our lives, allows like-minded individuals to seek one another out and share vast amounts of raw data. Researchers can lay claim to an idea not by publishing first in a journal (a process that can take many months) but by sharing their work online in an instant.

And while the rapidly decreasing cost of previously expensive technical procedures has opened up new directions for research, there is also increasing pressure for researchers to cut costs and deliver results. The economic crisis left many budgets in tatters and governments around the world are cutting back on investment in science as they try to balance the books. Open science can, sometimes, make the process faster and cheaper, showing what one advocate, Cameron Neylon, calls “an obligation and responsibility to the public purse”.

And given the trillions of dollars pumped into scientific research each year, it is perhaps no surprise that investors think ResearchGate is on the threshold of a major opportunity. But still, there is a serious question about how the site makes the sort of money that venture funds require — a point made recently in a piece in The Economist which dubbed Madisch “Professor Facebook.”

At the moment, most of those users are in their 20s. Their favourite activity is to ask each other questions about practical research problems, from DNA-sequencing techniques to statistical tricks. They are also busy reading each other’s papers: more than 10m have been uploaded.

Scientists whose reputations are established may be more hesitant, though, and not just because they are set in their ways. Science is not only about collaboration but also about competition. This limits what people are willing to share.

So far the company has been paid to build out some private versions that can operate behind the firewall inside institutions, and it is also looking into the possibility of job listings, reputation management and contextual advertising as revenue streams.

Board member Simon Levene, who is a venture partner at Index but put independent angel money into the company in its previous funding round, says that he sees a great opportunity to shake things up.

“The reason I fell in love with ResearchGate is that, in my opinion, the market for academic research in science is broken and ripe for disruption,” he says. “The dream of the web for Tim Berners-Lee was to allow researchers to collaborate, but the irony is that it hasn’t worked out that way.”

Madisch accepts that not everybody is convinced — many scientists simply refuse to share their knowledge, since they need to boost their own careers in order to receive funding. But like any good researcher, the 31-year-old relies on data to back up his response. Yes, the user base is young, but it’s skewing older as time goes on.

And then he pulls out a piece of anecdotal evidence to show precisely what he means.

“When I started ResearchGate, I was in Germany and my professor — 62 years old and a distinguished academic who has published more than a thousand papers — wouldn’t let me divide my time between research and the company,” he says. “He didn’t believe that scientists would do this, that they would share their ideas and answer questions about their work.”

“Six weeks ago I noticed that he’d signed up for ResearchGate.”