There was an early experience in first grade when the makings of a geek made an appearance. Somehow, I had managed to perfect the art of making papier-mâché frogs faster (and at higher quality) than anyone else in the class, including the teacher. The teacher then had me demonstrating for the entire class how to make this particular craftwork.
How I perfected the art shall remain my trade secret, but what’s important is little did I know that the path I had set out upon because of that single activity would take me to where I am at today. From that incident, I learned that I was capable of doing things no one else could, or in cases such as papier-mâché frogs, what no one else sanely wanted to do.
By second grade I was still determined to be the best at whatever ridiculous class activity was occurring. Only this time I got duped into doing math. By first semester’s end I had plowed through not only the second grade textbook, but the third grade as well and was just cracking the fourth grade textbook. I then decided to become a mathematician.
Two things. First, only a total geek/nerd would decide upon a career of theoretical math by the second grade. Second, this was only whole-fractions, at best, that I had learned at this point. By no means am I claiming genius. In fact, madness might be a better claim. I’ll settle for tenacity though, as that’s the award I received at the season-end soccer party in fourth grade. Never mind that tenacity was the coach’s euphemism for “sat in the backfield and only managed to kick the ball out of bounds.”
Tis the season for microscopes
My parents were not oblivious to my inklings towards science, and so, while every other boy in the second grade wanted a BB gun for Christmas, I begged, and received, a microscope.
If wanting to be a mathematician hadn’t solidified my life of geekdom, then the microscope sealed the deal. I squashed and observed bugs with that scope every day as a child and even took it to the lab once I got into grad school. Anyway, I was hooked on science. (For the real geeks, “I was Leeuenhoek-ed on science.”)
Eventually, I found my way into microbiology and molecular biology as an undergraduate. Then it was onto genetics and gene therapy as a graduate student. And I still carried a penchant for doing things that no one else wanted to do. Let me explain…
By my fourth year of grad school I was fed up with a certain reference manager. I won’t name it, but it starts with an “E” and ends with an “ndNote.” Noticing that others in my lab were similarly dissatisfied, I set out to create what I thought a reference manager should be like today, namely making use of the Web, collaborative filtering for recommendations, and social tools.
To do this, I would set up my lab experiments and code the website in between experimental failures (cough). Often, I would stay up way too late with 3am coding sessions into the night and then back into the lab by early morning. Clearly this was insane, but just like that childhood microscope, I was hooked.
I was compelled to do this not just because I was enjoying it, but science really needed something like this and no one else seemed to want to build it. That’s what I thought, until word about the project got around and I received an email from Victor asking me what I thought of his own project (to be fair, Paul and Jan were also a part of it).
If I was the kid doing advanced fractions in second grade math, then Vic, Paul, and Jan were the kids doing geometry in the back of the class without me knowing about it. They were building Mendeley, and while the early versions were very rough around the edges, I could see the vision they had for it. I knew instantly that this was the future of academic discovery and it was geektastic.
Landing the hottie
This is a story about startup life in science, and no story could be complete without a girl and a dilemma. We’ll just call her “G” and she was/is the hottie of my dreams. Somehow, I got past the first few dates and then had no idea what to do next. I had a PhD in playing with DNA, not with girls. Despite that shortcoming, she liked me enough to stick around and thus I had landed every geek’s dream, the hottie.
Here is where the dilemma enters the picture. Mendeley was in London, UK. I was still living in Palo Alto, aka Silicon Valley. That’s about 5300 miles apart (For the geeks WolframAlpha calculations).
Building THE startup of a lifetime
The lesson I learned all those years ago while creating that papier-mâché frog is that to advance something, sometimes you have to do what no one else is willing to do and to do it differently. In this case, it’s advancing how research works and moving 5300 miles to do it.
And so despite my dilemma, like many of you who have sacrificed to get that great postdoc or faculty position, I took the plunge into startup life. Luckily, I am also a geek who found a very understanding partner and with the aid of a TON of frequent flier miles (and very little sleep), I am able to pursue a dream of improving how research is done.
Victor, Paul, Jan and many of the others working on Mendeley have made equally huge sacrifices for the chance to create something with a major impact for the academic community. Building a startup, especially one revolving around academia, is no easy task. The rewards awaiting science and academia should we succeed are what motivate us.
Moving from a purely academic career into the startup environment straddling the tech industry has been an immensely rich experience already. And, to paraphrase Michael Nielsen, we are in the midst of a sea change within academic publishing. That’s exciting!
So, what’s the motivation for telling you all of this? In part, to admit that I am finally comfortable being a geek, and that geeks can get the hottie, but mainly it’s to let you know how committed all of us at Mendeley are to improving research and academia.
Hopefully, we will succeed in creating the product that we envisioned at the beginning and blend it with all of the great feedback we have been getting so far. We wouldn’t be doing this if we didn’t believe in its value to research.