Here’s how Bill Gates’s ResearchGate investment might change the world for the better

The reports were true: on Tuesday the scientific social network ResearchGate formally announced that Bill Gates was part of its $35 million Series C round, along with Tenaya Capital, Dragoneer Investment Group, Thrive Capital and existing investors Benchmark Capital and Founders Fund.

This makes me happy – not only because it’s a shot in the arm for the scene in Berlin, where I live, but also because I’ve been feeling quite down recently about the tech industry and the capacity of some elements to destroy rather than create value.

What ResearchGate is doing – and what it’s planning for the coming years – has reminded me how this industry can be a force for disruption in the most positive sense. Here’s why.

Fixing science

“I think science is broken,” Ijad Madisch, ResearchGate’s CEO and a former scientist himself, said at a small press event this morning. “If you’re doing research, you don’t publish the negative results. You only publish the positive results. But 97 percent of the things you’re doing are failed experiments – that’s raw data.”

ResearchGateMadisch’s solution, as we have detailed before, was to create a social network for researchers that would help them collaborate – not just by making it easier for them to become aware of each other’s published successes, but also by providing a platform through which they can share that raw data and learn from each other’s mistakes.

Compare this to the current system, where failures are buried despite the lessons that could be learned, and where even successes get filtered through a sometimes opaque and achingly slow peer review process. That’s not to say peer review is a bad thing – it’s crucial – but ResearchGate promises a different way of doing it.

“The current system needs months after you’ve sent a letter to the [journal’s] editor, if it gets accepted,” Madisch said. “Right now it’s a pre-peer review. I would rather do a post-review through the network: you publish it and the network can then give feedback. We’re creating a peer review system in our network which takes care of that. No-one has tried that before… we have a RG score number we want to use to replace the current [metrics] of reputation.”

It’s not just the journals’ slow methodology that ResearchGate wants to shake up – Madisch and co-founders Sören Hofmayer and Horst Fickenscher want to get past the extreme specialization of these silos in order to stimulate cross-pollination of ideas.

“If I publish in the Journal of Virology, I’m already doing categorization,” Madisch explained. “That’s nonsense – every paper should be tagged with many different tags.” And to that end, he added, ResearchGate is currently developing a technique to automatically extract tags and keywords out of papers that are uploaded to the platform or published for the first time through it.

And with fresh funding…

This new round comes with the cachet of Bill Gates’s name and his probably unparalleled network of contacts across the technological and medical worlds. But of course, it’s also cash. (It should be noted that this is Gates’s personal money we’re talking about, not that of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Photo: OnInnovation

Photo: OnInnovation

So what’s that going to be used for? According to Madisch, the first task is to refine the product, particularly aspects such as its API. “This will be the interface to the outside world so people can build applications using our data,” he said. “We want to be the telephone for scientists, but we won’t be able to build all the different apps.”

ResearchGate already gives universities and specific departments the ability to set up their own pages on the platform. Madisch said the company now wants to build on this and its current private project functionality, providing the opportunity for universities and departments to establish their own private collaboration networks on ResearchGate. “We also want to extend the API to departmental and university pages, so they can create their own apps for problems they want to solve,” he added.

And then there’s monetization. When Benchmark’s Matt Cohler joined the board at the Series A stage, the first thing he did was tell Madisch and his co-founders to forget about revenue until the network was valuable enough to command it.

That time is now on the horizon. Madisch said ResearchGate would start experimenting with various options, the most obvious of which is its research jobs board – this carries 15,000 posts at the moment, and it’s all for free. Another possibility lies in a “marketplace for scientific products and services” – lab equipment and the like – where Madisch thinks ResearchGate can also introduce a new level of transparency and usefulness.

In terms of growth, Madisch reckons his market will top out at around 10 million people (right now there are around 3 million members) if you don’t count lab technicians and 20 million if you do – obviously this is a large but necessarily limited space to be playing in, especially as users can only sign up with an institutional email address.

The company employs around 100 people now and Madisch said the plan is to bring in another engineering team in the next 6-12 months, to help manage the exponential growth in datasets being uploaded to the platform (ResearchGate runs its own server farm) and link them to the relevant people.

Long-term play

ResearchGate isn’t the only platform trying this, of course – Mendeley, which recently got bought by Elsevier (see disclosure), is another. But Madisch used Wednesday’s event to provide his opinion on that purchase, saying Mendeley sold out “because they did not succeed”.

“Every time you get acquired, you just lost,” he said. “You don’t create an open science movement if you sell your company very early on in the process. Our ambition is to create a very long-lasting company. We want to create an independent force in the scientific world which will change what data is shared and how data is shared, in real-time, on a very wide scale.”

I asked Madisch, who is open about the fact that he wants to win a Nobel Prize one day, whether his company might float at some point. “I don’t know,” was the cautious reply.

Whether or not ResearchGate does end up taking the IPO route, it seems clear that this company will make a difference. Madisch can already point to examples of this, such as the linking-up of researchers from Italy and Nigeria to help identify a new type of infectious agent, but this is more than just an opportunity for scientists to make connections. This is a platform for collaboration on the raw data level.

This firm is trying to change mindsets in order to improve the quality of the world’s scientific output. It’s no wonder that Bill Gates – a man with polio, malaria and tuberculosis on his kill list – saw an opportunity to back a game-changer.

Disclosure: Reed Elsevier, the parent company of science publisher Elsevier, is an investor in GigaOmniMedia, the company that publishes GigaOM.