Ahead of ESOF 2014, we talk to three leading figures in science, technology and academia who through frustrations of not having the effective tools necessary to do their work, decided to build their own.
In this three-part series in the run-up to Europe’s largest, general science meeting held every two years, this year in Copenhagen (June 21-26), we look at the increasing number of start-up companies that are “spinning out” of academic institutions worldwide.
Here, the founder of Figshare, Mark Hahnel talks about making the leap from academia to business and why he thinks open science is revolutionising the research community.
Mark completed his PhD in stem cell biology at Imperial College London three years ago, having previously studied genetics in both Newcastle and Leeds. He is passionate about open science and the potential it has to revolutionise the research community. Figshare is looking to become the place where all academics make their research openly available, as well as producing a secure cloud based storage space for their outputs. By encouraging users to manage their research in a more organised manner, so that it can be easily made open to comply with funder mandates. Openly available research outputs will mean that academia can truly reproduce and build on top of the research of others.
What were the biggest frustrations you faced in academia?
As a stem cell biologist, I created lots of videos and datasets that never really fit into the publication process. So as of right now, three years on from finishing my PHD, I have three papers from that time that have five static images in each and none are suited to the new ways we can disseminate research, videos, the datasets and the molecules, so I wanted to make academia more web native and to disseminate the content in the way it was formed.
How did this impact on your work and research activities?
It didn’t really impact on the way I actually carried out my work as I still generated these files, videos and datasets. However the currency in academia is still the paper and so knowing that, I had to work within the boundaries of the academic system. There was always an emphasis to generate papers. What I tried to do separately was create something that would make these other outputs available and reusable, but my actual research activities pretty much stayed the same.
What are the main challenges the academic system faces in supplying these effective tools?
So, for me, the main challenge that we see from academia is incentives. If the incentive structure is not right then people just haven’t got the time of day to bother with these things, they’re busy enough as it is and they’re playing so hard within the existing structure to try and advance their careers. So unless their funders or institutions tell them that they need to be doing something different they’re going to keep on going along with the status quo. And that’s ultimately why the web has taken so long to really change the way academic content is disseminated.
What was it like jumping straight from academia into a business helping serve academics?
The best thing about that was going into it with an open and naïve mind, in thinking it wouldn’t be as much work as you then realise it is going to be. Academia teaches you a lot of things, it teaches you how to work long hours, but at the same time I’d never been to a business class in my life. There are so many different aspects to business and just the general admin of business that if they told you about it beforehand you probably wouldn’t do it, because of lot of it is mundane.
What was the transition from academia to business like? And are there any similarities?
One thing I wasn’t told and one thing I think a lot of PHD students or academics don’t give themselves credit for is that they have a lot of transferable skills. They can work on their own, they can work in a team, they can project manage and manage their time really well. Product managers in internet start-ups do exactly that and yet an academic wouldn’t put themselves forward for that job because they wouldn’t know that they were qualified. Academics are generally qualified for so many different business jobs, it’s just they’re not told those jobs are available to them. So the transition was okay. It was very different to see people leaving the office at 5.30pm because you’re used to hanging around the lab until you’re done with your research for the day.
Did you ever feel out of your comfort zone and what important lessons did you learn?
Every single day I feel out of my comfort zone and it is okay to be out of your comfort zone because most people are, and it shows you’re actually moving things forward. The important lessons that I learned, is that no matter who you are talking to, everybody is human. There’s this whole idea of imposter syndrome in academia and the sooner you realise everybody suffers from that the sooner you realise that you can move forward a lot faster, get ahead, and serve a valuable purpose in whatever career you focus on.
What potential do you think open science has to revolutionise the research community and what role has Figshare played in this?
For me, open science and open research is the future of academia. Government mandates are coming in now and the first ones are happening in the UK. The White House is starting to talk about it and the EU under Neelie Kroes is focusing work around it. Governments have seen the benefits of open government data and getting value for the money that they invest into research. They’ve now started to say ‘well this is exactly what we need to be doing, so why are we not doing it this way?’ It is the incentive structure that is simply not set up for it.
So this is why the funders are now changing the structure, with a push to make your research openly available. This is the future, as I see it. Publishers are getting in on it too. So the advantages of open science and open research are if all the data is open then reproducibility is improved, the efficiency of discoveries will be improved and new ways to interrogate data that already exist will make every academics life a lot easier.
So, what role has Figshare played in this? Well, we work with publishers to make sure those files, the videos, the datasets, the spinning molecules can be incorporated into the existing credit system. We’re now working with institutions to make sure they can help their academics get credit for all their other research outputs, to better manage those research data files. So we’ve played a big part in it so far and we’re hoping to play an even bigger part in the future. The main thing about Figshare is its community-based so all of our good ideas, all of these new innovations have come from the community, institutions and publishers. We’re just the technology on the front end that puts it all together.
How has the research community responded to Figshare since it launched?
We’ve had a very positive reaction. There have been two waves really; the first was the early career researchers and the professors who have tenure who think this is how research should be done. They see the benefits of the web in other spaces and also in open research. We always had the problem with those people who are ten years into their career who will only do what the funders tell them to do. It would be a case of the funders say ‘jump’ and they say ‘how high’ and they would just continue on with the existing system.
The good thing now is that we’ve listened to them and focused on making sure the academics feel in control of their research outputs, it’s not just about open and closed research, it’s about control. And if you have control of your research and you feel that you can make stuff available when it needs to be available, as well as managing and updating it privately until then, that’s great. This area has been a big priority for us. We’ve got 1.5m public research files on the site now, which is significantly more than a lot of repositories have. This is because we focus on making it as seamless, as user friendly and as built into your existing work flows as is humanly possible, and if there are better ways to do it then we’ll always listen to the academics and try and do that.
How have you built up relations with institutions and has there been a desire for Figshare?
At the beginning of the year we launched an institution offering, called Figshare for Institutions. It actually came about from institutions that had a lot of academics using Figshare. They wanted to make sure that they had control over all of the research outputs that their institution was generating. If you get a £1bn in funding each year and you generate 12,000 published papers, is that really the sum total of that £1bn in funding that you get? What happens to everything else?
So again that control aspect we can give to researchers, we can also give to an institution. We’ve just started on-boarding our first institutional clients working with them to make sure their work flows are appropriate and that they can comply with funder mandates as they come along. Institutions like us because we’re agile, we can develop fast and we can tick all those boxes that they may struggle to do with non-academic research tools or non-academic web platforms.
How do you hope to build on your initial success?
All of the success we’ve garnered so far has come from listening to the community and stakeholders. So we will continue to listen to the publishers, the institutions, funders and most importantly the academics who have to deal with these systems. A lot of these systems are set up to tick boxes for institutions or for funder mandates. We want to make sure if you’re going to have these sticks then we want to build as many carrots as possible. So if you have to make your research outputs available we’re going to make it as seamless a workflow as possible and going to make sure you get the credit that you deserve for all of your research outputs.
A good example of this is our recent collaboration with GitHub where there are so many academics who generate code, that’s their research output, and yet can’t get credit for it. By working with Github we’ve been able to make sure that these people now can get credit for all of their research outputs and that’s by listening to the research community and seeing where these needs come from. So, as long as they keep coming up with problems and ideas for solutions, we’ll keep implementing them.
Mark’s Top Three Industry Tips:
- Don’t be afraid to leave academia. It is a common misconception that you will be deemed a failure and yet 99.5% don’t make it to PI Level.
- If you have frustrations and problems with the way you do your day to day work in academia and can come up with a better solution, do so!
- Don’t be nervous about reaching out to anybody be it business, academia and publishing – most people are good people and happy to help.
Mark is one of three interviewees who will be talking at an ESOF 2014 panel session called “I owe my business to my frustration as a scientist” on Monday, 23 June from 3pm-4.15pm (CET) at the Malting Hall. The session will be a more in-depth exploration of the three case studies in the sphere of science communication. It will focus on the genesis of these ideas, and what it took to turn them into a successful, viable business.
If you can’t make the ESOF panel in person, then we will be tweeting using the hashtag #ESOFmyscibus