Sciencebite was an internet startup in operation from April 2014 to March 2015, which aimed to provide an open marketplace for scientific expertise to industrial R&D. I led the startup from its conception; we won the support of a prominent angel investor in Berlin: the team numbered five people by the time it closed. Although we did not succeed in realising a successful marketplace, we learned much through building and launching two web applications that reached many scientists and R&D-led companies. The aim of this article is to share some of these learnings: especially about the ways in which scientists are bound to their conventional working practices, despite a desire to advance their careers in an open way.
The Sciencebite hypothesis: an open marketplace that would add value to the interface between industrial R&D and scientific experts
We started with the ideal of founding an “open expertise” platform that incentivized scientists to promote themselves based on their expertise, and take R&D out of secretive corporate relationships and onto the open internet. Until now there is little open exchange on the internet between industrial R&D and scientific expertise. The best examples are the “open innovation” crowdsourcing platforms, including InnoCentive and NineSigma, which are well established but serve only a tiny proportion of the world’s R&D needs. Rather, the main exchange between R&D and scientific expertise, which includes the job market, is fairly secretive.
A great source of inspiration for us was the recent trend of open internet platforms for other professions, such as StackExchange for programming knowhow, and Elance for software / web design freelancing. We admired the way software engineers could build their careers, make connections, and even sell their services using online tools, by being open about their expertise and contributing to open-source projects. Was there any reason why this culture should not also work for scientific R&D?
The following figure shows sciencebite’s space as we see it. A great variety of scientific expertise is used in industrial R&D, and there are many successful examples of open internet marketplaces for different professions. However there is little in the way of an open internet connection between scientific expertise and industrial R&D (X on the diagram). On the other hand, there are many successful service companies providing R&D expertise secretively (Y on the diagram), and there are successful open platforms providing open sharing in academic science like ResearchGate, Mendeley and Academia, but do not provide expertise to industry (Z on the diagram).
Our first product iteration: an idealistic communication tool for scientists to share knowhow, consult privately and refer colleagues
Our first product was full of idealism and hope for better communication between scientists. Launched July 2014 (private beta), the web application allowed users (mainly from Industry) to find scientists, ask them questions, and invite them to share publicly, consult privately (under our standard NDA and Service Contract) or refer colleagues for a share of the benefit. A sketch is shown in Appendix A. We built the platform using the current best practices for rapidly prototyping a web app: a Ruby-on-Rails back-end, Bootstrap front-end, hosted on Heroku, and connecting to external identity services (LinkedIn), external data sources (Pubmed and BASE), and an external search service (based on Solr), and email based workflows.
We launched this product to hundreds of relevant target users recruited mainly through our extended network of R&D professionals (applied scientists, engineers, project managers and executives in R&D). A considerable number of users came from our TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco exposure, the related Wall Street Journal Germany article and subsequent events in Berlin and Europe where we took part (e.g. WebSummit Dublin, Slush Helsinki). We also reached a variety of potential experts for one-on-one interviews, including academic scientists, employees in R&D companies and independent consultants.
The results were that a small number of our industrial contacts soon placed requests with us, to source expertise for immediate problems that they had. We found that, when we had these requests, it was easy to recruit junior scientists who were willing to consult. However, senior scientists or established consultants tended not to respond. The other functions we built were trickier to get right: few scientists made referrals and none shared knowhow openly on our site. We discovered many assumptions about our users were incorrect, with regard to their working practices and the user experience. For a start, we embraced the use open identities through LinkedIn as a way of verifying our user base, however most target customers wanted to deal with experts anonymously – therefore our use of open identities was a serious discouragement to many corporate R&D users. On the other side, scientists were not motivated to share publicly because they would have all the exposure of a journal article, and none of the academic benefits. We also found that users took too much care choosing scientists, and too little care to ask a good question. Regarding the search functionality, we thought that a minimal viable product would be to search open academic data with Solr, a state-of-the-art open source search engine. Unfortunately, this was not enough, as it did not give us a competitive advantage on Pubmed / Google Scholar, even though ours focused on people rather than papers. It was particularly problematic to deal with all the kinds of search terms that users threw at us, which were very diverse: from discipline expertise (e.g. microbiology) to full questions (e.g. how to estimate lifetime of a plastic part under stress?) or specific keywords (e.g. molecular drug targets).
Following our participation in the Google LaunchPad Berlin in October 2014, we reviewed our assumptions by conducting additional persona interviews with 5 target groups: Junior Scientists, R&D Managers, PhDs, PostDocs and Freelance Consultants.
We shifted our focus to where we found the traction – the need for short consultations with experts, and depreciate the other features. Our literature search function was replaced with a curated database of scientists that we recruited. (We planned to bring back the literature search when we had more resources to improve the search technology and data sources.) From the persona interviews, we decided to target specifically R&D managers on the industry side (most direct need out of our users in industry), and specifically junior scientists on the expert side (most available for flexible consulting, easiest to recruit). Instead of approaching all industries, we decided to focus on biotech (large investment in R&D, multidisciplinary, very scientific).
Our second product iteration: a freelance consulting marketplace, for scientists to promote their profiles along with their availability for consulting
Thus came our second product, launched January 2015. This product was more realistic and based on what our target users had asked for: a two-sided marketplace for expertise consultations. A sketch is shown in Appendix B. Scientists could register to present their profiles and availability (on our standard contract). Companies could browse our scientists, send them messages and request a consultation. We built a signup process to import profile data from Mendeley and LinkedIn, and profiles that emphasized a scientist’s skills.
We launched an outreach campaign, to assess the expertise needs of business owners and chief scientists at innovative biotech startups and SMEs, in Germany, Europe and the US. This was a great success – around 35 executives gave us in-depth interviews, and we offered each of them publicity in the form of a feature on our blog which we decided to focus on the biotech scene. We also got into Wired Germany’s feature “15 Ideas for a Better World” in February 2015. We experimented with social media advertising, leading to successful campaigns on Facebook and LinkedIn to recruit experts. We also recruited scientists and executives at academic conferences and trade shows – these events were a high investment for the number of users, but they allowed us high-quality face-to-face feedback. We attempted to form university partnerships via several tech transfer / career offices of German universities, and joined BioDeutschland (the industry association for German biotech) to promote ourselves to its member companies.
Our earlier successes with finding companies to request consultations were unfortunately not repeated, perhaps because the new contacts were from cold contact. Biotech startups all said they would find expertise within their networks (and not pay for it), and none placed a request with us. Large companies said the same and commented that they invest in managing their expertise networks, and therefore doubted our service would work for large companies. Our social media ads showed many scientists to be curious about this type of work, and enthused by our idea, but focusing on freelance consulting was not an option for them – they were much more worried about finding permanent jobs. Our newly recruited scientists differed widely in how much data they would put on their profiles – only a few wrote a lot about their skills. However, none were contacted by target companies, either via our own contacts or organically from their profile as an internet landing page. Content marketing on our blog resulted in bursts of visits, with around 5% of visits converted into use of website (i.e. search on web app).
Many scientists showed they were unsure about whether they were even allowed to do paid work outside their research institution; contacts at university commercialization offices also expressed these concerns. A couple of companies reported that they do use flexible labor from junior scientists, but not as short consultations, rather as occasional project work lasting weeks or months. University commercialisation / career offices showed polite interest in our idea but opposed their own PhDs consulting without their involvement (fear of IP being shared, legal regime not authorizing such consulting engagements, etc.)
Our main learning was that, unfortunately, the market for junior scientist skills on a consultation basis is very limited. Junior scientists were difficult for us to sell to biotech companies, because these companies already have practices of acquiring knowhow, and what we offered them was not powerful enough to make them change their practices.
Variation of the second product: a freelance jobs marketplace
Without developing a new product, we investigated whether our platform could be adapted for jobs, particularly freelance/flexible jobs, i.e. engagements lasting from a few weeks to a few months. This idea was marketed from February 2015. We set up meetings with several HR managers in large and medium-sized German biotech companies, who were very open to discussing the market with us. The HR managers were generally friendly to the idea of an open marketplace for scientific labor. However, they were unconcerned with freelance jobs. Most said that, whenever they have an opening, they have no problem having scientists come to them. We also targeted recruiters who had recently posted entry-level scientific jobs. The response from this group was disappointing: despite being lower in the corporate hierarchy, they were very difficult to reach, probably because they are used to being chased by job applicants and staffing agents. The few we reached were unenthusiastic, because the balance of power is already in their favour, they did not need to actively look for candidates. Moreover, there were many criteria they wished to see in a candidate outside what was provided in our profiles. Some feedback we got from scientists suggested their availability for flexible jobs was likely to be scarcer than for short consultations.
We were forced to acknowledge that there simply isn’t a significant market for short term scientific jobs in R&D, and the current Sciencebite profiles were not sufficient to convince companies to try hiring junior scientists in this way.
Conclusion – we did not succeed in developing a model that connects industrial clients to scientific expertise in a viable way
After careful review of alternative options, we have to admit we have exhausted the product options available to us without finding a model that connects industrial clients to scientific experts in a viable way. Each model has met roadblocks that are at present difficult to overcome.
|Freelance marketplace||insignificant market for consultations or flexible scientific work in R&D|
|Expertise search||insignificant market for expertise of junior scientists (and far behind competitors as a general expertise search platform)|
|Q&A (open knowhow)||little incentive for scientists to share outside academic system; inhibition to ask open questions in R&D|
|Promotional platforms||unclear competitive advantage of the current Sciencebite profiles, no particular evidence that developing a better profile would be profitable|
|Crowdsourcing||far behind competitors, no particular inspiration for original product|
We believe that the failure of our initiatives cannot be attributed to execution. We worked marvelously as a team, built and launched the products in a relatively short time, and promoted them to many people. Even if we had reached 10x as many target companies; even if we had spoken to 10x as many people within those companies; even if we had recruited 100x as many scientists, or scientists only from top institutions; even if our web application had behaved slicker; even if there had been more ways for scientists to import their data; even if we had had higher search rankings, etc., it is difficult to imagine that the market reaction to our products would be any different.
Hypothetical technological advances could perhaps have given us a viable product: e.g. a radical new search technology or data source, but these were not the vision of the business – it was more about a marketplace than a technology.
Likewise, we cannot blame lack of finance. Our pre-seed fund has sufficed for us to build two web applications, and try all the marketing and business models that we conceived. If we had succeeded in raising a seed round, we could have built more product features and a slicker product, and scaled up the marketing, but it would not have helped with the roadblocks above.
So we could not prove the Sciencebite hypothesis because (1) the product vision was insufficient, (2) the market that we are going after hardly exists, and (3) we have not brought a radical advance that is able to quickly change R&D working practices.
Outlook: there is hope
Nevertheless, there are signs of hope. We discovered a universal interest from R&D professionals about connecting openly – many people told us that they can’t imagine why our concept did not exist already. There was a widespread need for expertise among companies, despite the skepticism that high quality knowhow could be provided via a website. We found a genuine desire among scientists to sign up, share their skills, and a curiosity that they could earn money this way. I believe that someday, someone will figure out a way to build a platform that caters for these needs, whether it is through a technology advance or an amazing insight about scientists’ behavior. I look forward to that day.
A. First product: share, refer and consult
1. Users were invited to enter a search query to find relevant scientists.
2. The user could select one or more scientists to invite an answer.
3. The recipient had three options: share publicly, creating a public page linked to their profile for self-promotion…
… or advise privately in the Sciencebite project room, which provided standard contracts and payment services for R&D consulting…
… or refer a colleague and take a share of the rewards if that colleague earned money through Sciencebite.
B. Second product: two-sided marketplace
1. Users could search for a scientist.
2. Scientists could present their profiles and availability for consulting.
3. A user could request consultations from a scientist and buy their time.