Editor’s note: Launched four years ago, ResearchGate is a professional network for scientists and researchers, enabling them to collaborate as well as conduct and publish research. In this interview, the company’s founder, Dr. Ijad Madisch, explains the benefits of the network and discusses how the company started from a vision and grew to more than two million customers.
SandHill.com: Please describe your company and how it originated.
Ijad Madisch: When I was working in the lab a few years back, I hit a stumbling block. It was hard to find an expert on the topic who could help me. Looking around, I noticed how inefficiently scientists were communicating their research and distributing their findings. That’s when I had the idea for ResearchGate. I wanted to change how the system works, make it faster and more efficient in order to drive scientific progress.
We launched ResearchGate in May 2008 in Boston, Massachusetts. Today, we’re headquartered in Berlin, Germany.
We’re not part of an established market; we’re leading the way to a new, dynamic and interactive way of conducting and publishing research. Researchers and scientists are our “customers,” although this term is misleading in our case, because they use our services free of charge. Today, more than 2.3 million researchers and scientists from all over the world share their results and collaborate on ResearchGate.
SandHill.com: How does your company/product drive business value for scientists and researchers?
Ijad Madisch: We’re not a typical business enterprise, so we don’t drive our customers’ business value in a traditional sense. Researchers do profit greatly from our services, though. ResearchGate helps scientists to distribute their findings and to make a name for themselves. If they’re active on the network — for example, by sharing their publications with the community and the rest of the Web, or by interacting with other researchers — they increase their visibility and up the chance to get their science seen and recognized by a wider range of people. This in turn means that they gain attention from fellow scientists as well as from funding agencies and other relevant stakeholders.
To make it easier for the scientists and researchers to put scientific achievements into perspective, we recently launched a dynamic and interactive metric for scientific reputation. The “RG Score” follows a novel approach: researchers get the chance to make every part of their work count, whether it has been published in a peer-reviewed journal or not, and whether it’s a full-fledged article, a raw data set or negative results from an experiment. The RG Score builds on and supplements previous scientific metrics and allows a more holistic view of researchers’ work at a glance.
SandHill.com: How did you get your first investor? What clinched the deal for you?
Ijad Madisch: The very first investors for ResearchGate were friends and family. There wasn’t much convincing to do; they knew us and believed in the idea as much as we did. The first big step was our Series A funding. I was just about to get on a plane and fly off to Boston for the Memorial Day weekend when I got a call from Matt Cohler asking me to meet him. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go; after all I had a flight to catch. At that point I was still very new to the startup scene and understood neither what this meant, nor who Matt Cohler was. (I later learned he was one of the first employees of Facebook, co-founded LinkedIn and is now general partner at Benchmark Capital.) Luckily, I talked to a friend a few minutes later and he knew better.
So I met Matt. He asked me about my goals for ResearchGate. I answered that I want to win the Nobel Prize. Someone else without a vision for the bigger picture probably would have left the room. Matt stayed, and invested. He understands that we’re trying to do something off the scale, something completely new, and that’s a big part of what convinced him. Matt is a member of our board and also invested in our Series B funding round, which closed in February 2012.
SandHill.com: What challenges have you encountered that you didn’t anticipate?
Ijad Madisch: Looking back, I’d probably say that the biggest difficulty was to build a team that believed in the idea of ResearchGate as much as we do and to foster this spirit. I think the biggest challenges always hit you unanticipated. I’m curious to know what my answer to this question will be a few years from now.
SandHill.com: Please describe one of your company’s lessons learned and where it occurred in the timeline of your product development.
Ijad Madisch: One of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far is that it’s a good idea to work together with friends. They’re the people you can trust even in times of trouble. I founded ResearchGate with Dr. Sören Hofmayer, whom I met at university while studying medicine, and Horst Fickenscher, an IT expert and longtime friend.
When I started out, a lot of people advised me against mixing business with private matters. I did the exact opposite. This resulted in a strong foundation for ResearchGate that is built on friendship, dedication and a shared vision for the company.
SandHill.com: What was your toughest moment and how did you resolve the issue? Do you have advice for other entrepreneurs or startups for avoiding such an experience?
Ijad Madisch: One of our toughest moments was a potential early acquisition in 2008. The help of my co-founders helped us to get back on track and focus on our mission.
SandHill.com: When you encounter challenges or setbacks, how do you pull yourself back up and become inspired again?
Ijad Madisch: It’s unusual for me to get frustrated, and ResearchGate sometimes inspires me more than I can handle. I often get impatient though, when things don’t happen as quickly as I want them to. What really helps me then is working out. I like to play beach volleyball, or I go for a run. We also have table tennis, air hockey, foosball and a pool table at the office. I take a break and exercise. Afterwards I feel much better. Moving helps me to put things back into perspective.
SandHill.com: What is the most interesting way you have used social media platforms to acquire customers or employees?
Ijad Madisch: We’re a social network ourselves. A lot of applications we get come from researchers and computer engineers who are already members of the network before they apply to ResearchGate. Of course, we also use other social media channels. Twitter and Facebook are great ways to connect the research community with an even broader audience.
We take interesting discussions from the network and tweet them. This way, people who like science but are not necessarily signed up to ResearchGate learn what’s happening on the network. We get a lot of feedback through Twitter as well. This one is my favorite from today: “ResearchGate I frickin love you! best nerdy website ever”(@diamondsparker).
SandHill.com: What do the next 12 months hold for your company?
Ijad Madisch: These last four years have been a very exciting time, and I believe that 2013 will even top it. We’ve recently launched a new feature that allows scientists to publish all of their output online, including raw, supplementary or even negative data. This will make the research process more transparent and allow scientists to get credit for work that previously went unnoticed. We’ll introduce new features that will allow immediate feedback from other scientists on this research — basically creating an interactive, digital and much faster way of peer review.
On the business side, we’re going to start building a marketplace, which will take a totally novel approach to promoting biotech equipment.
SandHill.com: From your observation or experience, what is the most challenging aspect of innovation, and how have you overcome that challenge at your company?
Ijad Madisch: The true driver for innovation, I believe, is a mission that everyone believes in — in his or her very own way. This also means that everyone has to respect each other and their views. We have people from all over the world working at ResearchGate. They all contribute their perspectives, founded on their cultural backgrounds and upbringing. This diversity, in combination with a strong mission, is a huge source for innovation.
But establishing and maintaining this respectful environment is something that isn’t easy to come by; it’s an ongoing project. We have more than 30 nationalities, including Jews, Muslims, Christians and atheists working together at our headquarters in Berlin. This always makes for a fruitful and innovative exchange.
SandHill.com: If you could go back and do it all over again, from the time you first began your position with your company, what would you do differently the second time around?
Ijad Madisch: Nothing. Of course I made mistakes and I probably still do. The good thing is that I learned from them, and I wouldn’t want to miss that experience.
SandHill.com: Who is the person you’d most like to meet (and why)?
Ijad Madisch: One of the people I’d love to meet is Bill Gates. First off, his career and what he’s done for IT is impressive. What I admire most about him though is that he doesn’t only have his business in mind but also works on eradicating diseases and promotes education worldwide.
SandHill.com: Imagine that next week you have a full day with an empty calendar. What would you do that day?
Ijad Madisch: I’d do nothing spectacular; I’d probably spend it playing beach volleyball, meeting with friends, and I’d certainly get a good night’s sleep. I think it’s very important to balance out my busy schedule with rest and exercise.
SandHill.com: What is something you’ve wanted to do for a long time but haven’t done yet?
Ijad Madisch: The one thing I’ve wanted to do for a long time but haven’t gotten around to has to do with research, of course. I’d like to pick one specific question, gather all available data sets from various sources and research fields, conduct an extensive meta-analysis and come to a conclusion. This used to be incredibly difficult because access to relevant information was often restricted. With ResearchGate, we’re building a community that lets us pull all assets together and find answers to important questions, crossing all different kinds of borders, be it nationality or research field.
Dr. Ijad Madisch studied medicine and computer science in Hannover, Germany, and at Harvard University. He worked at Massachusetts General Hospital for several years as a radiology researcher. Together with two friends Ijad launched the professional network for scientists, ResearchGate, in May 2008. Four years later, more than 2.3 million scientists from around the world collaborate, publish and build a reputation for themselves on the platform.
Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor of SandHill.com.