Starting Up in Scholarly Communications

My startup story and a lesson on supplying customer's actual demands

Aug 06, 2019
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There is a moment in the life of every start-up when the entrepreneur realises that what he is selling is not what people are buying. Over 35 years ago this thought stopped me in my tracks outside of a solicitor’s office in a small Hampshire town in the New Forest. I was running the innovative legal retrieval start-up called Eurolex for the Thomson Corporation, and my visit to this small legal practice was part of a programme to capture as much baffling insight as I could from early customers of the service. I was selling them enhanced computerised legal information retrieval, more effective than human enquiry, covering a wide range of sources, far bigger than their own library resources and demonstrating modern technology in the law practice. How could I fail? And how was that people were not buying my better mousetrap in the quantities that my five year plan required?

So I told the senior partner of this law practice that his partnership really needed my services. I sold hard on innovation and painted a picture of them being able to outstrip big city rivals with smart research covering far more sources than you would normally expect in a small country practice. He was unimpressed. He said that his current manual research activity was “good enough“. He said he was attracted by my trial offer for totally different reasons. He had no more room for books and people in his offices and would have to expensively relocate to expand the practice. He said my trial terms made it cheaper to use me than add more people. He said my billing system was compatible with his and he could simply download time and cost into his invoicing from my service. He was, he made it clear, almost totally uninterested in improved legal information retrieval, but he would definitely buy what I was selling.

I sat in the car park for almost an hour afterwards trying to rethink what we were doing as a business and retrofitting what we had invented into the way lawyers actually worked.

I have had the great privilege to be able to meet and talk with many companies who innovate. But I have noticed with interest when they start to realise what their customers are buying as distinct from what they themselves are selling. Last month I had the pleasure of talking to my friends at Morressier, the Berlin-based service that gathers up all the information around posters and conferences as indicators of research group activity in scholarly communications. I realise that when I first met them I saw them as a collector of data that has been neglected and not curated. Now I see them as a way of judging the progress of a research project, through its interim activities and ability to describe its early results and objectives. 

Given the time pressures of scholarly research in a number of scientific disciplines, getting early indicators of potential and being able to gauge how close to completion key projects have reached becomes a high value component of predictive analysis of research outcomes. In my lifetime we have moved from taking over two years to publish a research report at the conclusion of a project to anticipating its likely outcomes at various stages of research development. Now that Morressier have the data they can begin to apply the analysis. Combine that analysis with all the data about actual findings and you have a treasure trove of analytic feedback for funders, governments, research institutions, universities and research programmes. This company now becomes a potential powerhouse of trend research, alerting services, competitive analysis and consultancy, especially in fields that impact pharma, food science, agriculture, climatology, and any sector where governments and markets seek the earliest indicators of where to place the next bet.

And I have very similar feelings about another important growth point, Katalysis.io.This Amsterdam-based start up began, to my mind at least, as a technology-centric, as distinct from a data-centric, project built fundamentally on blockchain technology. Today, as it embarks on its next funding round, the impact of work which it is doing with major players like Springer Nature, is beginning to show. Real contact with intermediaries and end users has shown them how the market in information is being framed by concern about impact and dissemination – who downloaded the document, who read it, who passed it to whom? – and what its provenance was – can you trace it to a legitimate source, is it fake news etc?

In the face of this, the company has become a Track and Trace player, using technologies like data ledger and document tracking to meet these needs. This marks a real shift for those who can recall times when the word “ metadata “ was always followed by a discussion on discovery. Now it is more often followed by a discussion on impact and dissemination. Katalysis.io have found a rich new seam of need to exploit, which should make their funding round straightforward.

These two young companies are united in their discovery of addressable need. And by something else. They both respond to markets where the need for speed and certainty in information undercuts still prevalent thinking derived from the world of printed journals about acceptable timing and measurement of effect. While scholarly communications was quick to “ go digital” it has been slow to “ think digital”. These two companies, whose work could flourish as well in any other vertical sector of information markets, are indicators of more profound change in scholarly communications as well.

Originally published on davidworlock.com on 17th July 2019

David Worlock

Publisher, Consultant

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