Science Startups meet at Le Web 2014

Axon

Since becoming Elsevier’s VP of Strategy, Mendeley Co-founder and CEO Victor Henning has been up to a lot of exciting stuff. Here he tells us a bit about his latest project, Axon, which is stirring things up by bringing together the best and brightest new startups in the fields of Science and Research at Le Web 2014.

Over the last few years, I have watched something interesting happen in the world of science: Tech startups and VCs suddenly care about scientists. Strangely, this wasn’t always the case.

When the World Wide Web was invented at CERN, its original purpose was to help manage and share scientific information about particle accelerator experiments. Yet, with the exception of a few search engines, document repositories, and journal databases, the web remained barren of well-designed tools and applications engineered for scientists.

Instead, the last 15 years witnessed the explosion of the consumer web and mobile apps, fueled by advertising revenue. Jeff Hammersbacher, an early Facebook data science employee (and now founder of Cloudera), summed it up as:

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks. If instead of pointing their incredible infrastructure at making people click on ads, they pointed it at great unsolved problems in science, how would the world be different today?”

How indeed? We might be watching hilarious cat gifs on the screens of our flying cars.

Around 2008, things started to change: A small wave of bootstrapped startups began building document management tools, social networks, and recommendation engines for scientists. Among them was Mendeley, my own company. Grown out of our own frustrations as researchers, my co-founders and I built Mendeley to make science more open, more efficient, and more collaborative. Getting started wasn’t easy – many VCs turned us down because they saw research as a “niche”. We nonetheless managed to convince a couple of angel investors (among them the founders of Skype) to invest in us.

After launching in 2009, we came to LeWeb to participate in the startup competition. I have the fondest memories of the event – a freezing, pre-Christmas Paris in December, and Dave McClure, the famously foul-mouthed Silicon Valley angel investor, tweeting his sexual arousal at seeing our pitch:

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Events like LeWeb helped put us on the map with international investors, press, and potential users. From there, Mendeley grew to a research platform connecting more than 3.5 million researchers in 180 countries, with institutional customers like Stanford, Harvard, and MIT. In April 2013, we were acquired by Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of science and health information.

Without wanting to claim undue credit, quite a few Ph.D. students and Postdocs who became entrepreneurs themselves have told me that Mendeley was an inspiration for them: It proved that tools for researchers could go from garage to global audience, and it proved to potential investors that the “niche” could also deliver sizeable exits.

We are now seeing the emergence of a second wave of venture-backed research startups, offering a much wider range of scientific workflow tools. They help scientists keep electronic versions of lab notebooks, organize and share experimental data, order lab materials, write papers collaboratively, outsource experiments to other labs and to the cloud, get credit for peer reviews, launch their own journals, and even raise crowdfunding for their research projects.

It’s time to give this movement more visibility. Elsevier and LeWeb 2014 are teaming up to run a half-day event called Axon@LeWeb (in case you’re wondering – in the brain, axons are the fibres that carry impulses from neurons to other nerve cells). We want to bring together the most exciting science and research startups – the ones that build tools for the best minds of our generation, to help them crack those great unsolved problems.

Startups can apply online here, and we already have applications from amazing companies in the US, Canada, Sweden, France, the UK, and Germany. The 15 best startups will receive a free ticket to LeWeb 2014, as well as the opportunity to present at Axon@LeWeb and network with the hottest companies in this space. Even if your startup is not among the 15 selected to present, Elsevier is sponsoring a €200 discount on the regular startup ticket for all science and research startups that want to join us at LeWeb.

Applications for Axon@LeWeb close on Sunday, 16th November, at midnight CET, and the winning startups will be announced by Tuesday, 18th November.

Hope to see you in Paris in December!

Mendeley and Elsevier – here’s more info

 

Victor science
Victor Henning, Mendeley Co-Founder, speaks at the ScienceBusiness Awards 2012 in Brussels (Photo by ScienceBusiness)

The news of Mendeley joining Elsevier made some waves last week.

On Twitter, with typical understatement, it was compared to the Rebel Alliance joining the Galactic Empire, to peasants posing as a human shield for Kim Jong-Un, and to Austin Powers teaming up with Dr Evil.

It’s true that, when I was 13, I played through X-Wingon my Amstrad 486 PC, then had fun playing an Empire pilot in the TIE Fighter sequel — and I’m also half Korean. So while my colleagues are busy mounting the frickin’ laser beams onto the heads of the sharks we brought in to replace our foosball table, I thought I would address some of the other concerns and questions that were raised.

What is the “real” reason for Elsevier acquiring Mendeley?

The question that emerged most frequently, sometimes in the tone of conspiratorial whispers, was about the “real” reason Elsevier acquired Mendeley. Surely there must be a man behind the curtain with a devious masterplan? Not quite. In my mind, it’s straightforward: Elsevier is in the business of providing scientific information to the academic community. In order to serve academics better, it acquired one of the best tools for managing and sharing scientific information. Elsevier can now provide its customers with solutions along the entire academic workflow: Content discovery & access, knowledge management & collaboration, and publication & dissemination. Mendeley provides the missing link in the middle, and brings Elsevier closer to its customers. This makes intuitive sense to me, and I hope you can see the rationale, too.

But what will Elsevier do with Mendeley’s data?

Some people voiced concerns that Elsevier wanted Mendeley’s data to clamp down on sharing or collaboration, sell the data on in a way that infringes our users’ privacy, or use it against them somehow. We will not do any of those things. Since the announcement, we have already upgraded our Mendeley Advisors to free Team Accounts, and are currently reviewing how we can make collaboration and sharing easier for everyone on Mendeley. Also, I want to be clear that we would never pass on our users’ personal data to third parties, or enable third parties to use our users’ data against them.

Of course, Mendeley’s data does have commercial value. Even before the Elsevier acquisition, Mendeley was “selling user data” — but in an aggregate, anonymized fashion – to university libraries: The Mendeley Institutional Edition (MIE) dashboard contains non-personal information about which journals are being read the most by an institution’s faculty and students. Librarians use this information to make better journal subscription decisions on behalf of their researchers, and more than 20 leading research institutions in North America, Europe, and Asia have signed up since its launch last summer.

Mendeley’s Open API also offers aggregate, anonymized usage data, though on a global rather than institutional basis. Mendeley gives this data away for free under a Creative Commons CC-BY license. It’s being used by tools like ImpactStory.org or Altmetrics.com, which are building business models around altmetrics data. Again, you could argue that Mendeley’s usage data is being “sold”, and even sold by third parties. However, as you can see, the general principle is that the data is used only for positive purposes, like analyzing research trends and scholarly impact, without violating the privacy of Mendeley users. That’s how we will keep it in the future, and this applies to any usage of the data by Elsevier or via our Open API.

So how will Elsevier make money off Mendeley?

The existing Mendeley offering will continue to be free, so that we can continue to grow our user base as we have in the past, and we will also integrate Mendeley into Elsevier’s existing offerings like ScienceDirect or Scopus to increase their value. This actually means that we’re now under less short term pressure to monetize Mendeley’s individual users. When we were an independent start-up, we had to think about charging for every new or additional feature, in order to get to break even. Now, we can think more about the long term again.

For example, this enabled us to double our users’ storage space for free immediately after the Elsevier announcement. We had previously also planned to make the sync of highlights & annotations in our forthcoming new iOS app a premium feature – today, we decided instead that it will be free for all users, and thus also free for all third-party app developers to implement. And, as mentioned above, we are currently reviewing our collaboration features to see if we can expand them for free, too.

Lastly, what does your new role in the strategy team at Elsevier mean in practice?

Along with the Elsevier news last week, it was announced that I would – in addition to my role at Mendeley – be joining the Elsevier strategy team as a VP of Strategy. A number of our users and Mendeley Advisors have asked what this will mean in practice, and how my input would be taken onboard.

I’ve been in Amsterdam this week to meet some of my new colleagues and exchange ideas — it’s been genuinely enjoyable and inspiring, so we’re off to a very promising start. I’ve been asked to support them in sharing not just Mendeley’s features, but also Mendeley’s experiences and user-centric values with the Elsevier organization, and to keep pushing the ideas that have made Mendeley successful. Conversely, I will also work on how to best bring Elsevier’s tools, data, and content onto the Mendeley development roadmap and into our users’ daily workflow.

We’re not short of amazing ideas, and you have shared some really exciting suggestions with us as well – the challenge will be to pick the best ones and actually get them done. As always, we will be listening closely to your feedback on how to improve our products and set our development roadmap. Watch this space!

 

Mendeley wins again at The Europas

 

There’s been some great news for Mendeley this week. For the second time in our 4-year history, we’ve won a major award at The Europas, considered the Oscars of the European Tech scene.

 

Mendeley’s founders Jan, Paul, and Victor, who started Mendeley in 2009 in London, were voted the “Best Startup Founders” by The Europas Judges. They were up against high-profile competition from the founders of DataHug, Hailo, Huddle, Mind Candy, Songkick, SoundCloud, TransferWise, Wonga, and Zoopla. Mendeley had already scooped up the “Best Social Innovation Which Benefits Society” award at The Europas in 2009.

 

“It’s both wonderful and humbling to have won the Best Startup Founders award, especially when nominated alongside some of the most inspiring tech entrepreneurs in Europe. To me, this award is really a recognition of the passionate, creative, and dedicated team we have assembled, and the work we have done together. Thanks also go to our 1,700 Mendeley Advisors and fantastic community of over 2 million users worldwide”, said Victor, our Co-founder and CEO.

 

We will continue to work on making science more open and collaborative on a global scale, beginning with the recent push towards moving our infrastructure to our Open API. Thank you for your support!