Posted: 5:12 p.m. Friday, Oct. 18, 2013
By Srikumar Rao
Richard Price's Academia.edu has grown exponentially to 4.8 million academic users, many of whom return each month. A former professor writes about its potential.
Richard Price, the founder of Academia.edu, a social network for academic researchers, recently raised $11.1 million in a Series B funding round. But there's a lot more to his story.
Business Lessons Before Academia.edu
Price is a serial entrepreneur. As a doctoral student in philosophy at Oxford, he started Richard's Banana Bakery to supply banana cakes to cafes. He would wake up at 5:30 AM to bake the cakes and deliver them before the morning rush, and buy ingredients in the evening. The hours were too long for the amount of money he was making. That's how he learned low margin businesses were not for him.
He switched to making sandwiches and delivering them directly to clients for lunch. Dashing Lunches was born and it was much more profitable. His sandwiches were so good that customers took one look and bought them. Unsold inventory became his lunch and his mother's lunch and his sister's lunch. Since he sold directly to consumers, not to cafes, his margins improved. He also discovered that ancillary items like chips and soda almost doubled his profits effortlessly. So he learned a different lesson: Deal directly with customers and give them lots of additional stuff to buy when they become your customer; all margins are not the same.
The hours were still long and he discovered that hiring another person and growing the business was almost as much work as building his base had been. That was his third lesson: The most efficient way to build a business is to make it easily scalable.
When Facebook appeared in the new millennium and, in the early days, all apps were hosted on outside servers and linked to Facebook, Price created PeopleRadar, an application that enabled Oxford students to rate their friends on attractiveness. It became global and was the top app on Facebook for nine months. He made decent money charging for advertising on the site. So he learned: If it is easy and fun, people will use it; it does not take long to mega-scale operations on the Internet.
Then he asked his big question: Am I helping humanity in some way? Can I hold my head high and be proud of my work? The answer was a resounding, "No!"
How Price Came Up With the Idea for Academia.edu
About this time, Price finished his Ph.D. thesis on consciousness and the mind-body problem and started writing academic articles. Three years later he was stuck in limbo with all his articles held up somewhere in the peer review process. He noticed his fellow academics struggling to put their papers online on websites they created with great pain. There was no uniformity in the sites and the functionality was mostly poor.
Why, he wondered, could he not create a platform where every member of academia could have his or her own site and publish his or her research immediately? Last year, he decided he could. He used some of his earnings from PeopleRadar to hire a coder and started Academia.edu.
In academia, each field of study has a prestige journal--or two or three of them--and they guard their articles jealously. This is how they make money. Price worked around this. There are actually three stages an academic article goes through. The first is the precious baby produced by the authors. This is the pre-print version. Virtually all journals permit authors to do whatever they want with this. Then that baby is sent out for review and learned peers weigh in with comments and these are incorporated into the paper. Revisions can be minor or major. This is the author version and about half of all journals permit authors to publish it. Lastly, there is the final published version of the article in journal format. Journals guard this closely and do not permit easy dissemination.
Academia.edu encourages researchers to post their pre-print and author versions of papers. Most of the important information is in these and it becomes immediately accessible. Academia.edu promises to bring to the world of academic publishing the same revolution that Amazon.com has launched in the world of commercial publishing.
Why would any reputable scientist put up with the often-tyrannical gatekeepers of prestige journals and their endless delays and cumbersome procedure? The only reason is the stature conveyed by publication there. So what if Academia.edu could confer the same stature--or even more--to the authors for a job well done? What if it could get the best-known, most highly-regarded experts in the field read and comment on the articles? And not just two or three of these--as in a typical peer review--but dozens? Then researchers will flock to Academia.edu and expensive, subject-specific, narrow-circulation academic journals may go the way of slide-rules.
Academia.edu is not quite there yet, but Price has made significant headway in generating valuable social currency and prominence for top-notch researchers and I suspect he'll hit the tipping point soon.
Impressive Numbers: a Large User Base, Exponential Growth
One reason I believe Academia.edu will inevitably reach a tipping point is because of the sheer numbers of academics who are flocking to the site already. It has 4.8 million users--about a quarter of the 17 million academics and graduate students worldwide. Roughly a quarter of the user base comes back each month, which is the same as Twitter's active rate and better than LinkedIn's.
Academia.edu is adding 600,000 academics a month. Three months ago that number was 300,000. This exponential growth and market dominance ensures that everybody who is anybody will soon be on Academia.edu because they cannot afford not to be. That is where all the action is gravitating.
There are all kinds of ways in which Academia.edu is helping the important but non-vocal community of scholars. It enables them to showcase their research without the pain of crafting a personal web page. It also fosters a global academic community. A typical professor may keep tabs on a dozen journals. Someone outside her field may make a significant contribution and she will be unaware of it for months or even years. Academia.edu makes her instantly aware of such research and who did it.
Price knows first-hand the value of such information. His doctoral thesis was so specialized that he knew of only a handful of people around the world who could understand it. At a conference he ran across a graduate student who told him that he had been working on the same stuff for years. Price was dumbfounded.
Academia.edu's community confers all kind of unexpected benefits. Pramod Kumar, a post-doc in laser optics at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi was frustrated that after years of toil and sweat no one was reading his papers or citing them. On the recommendation of his advisor, he posted on Academia.edu. Professor Frederic Grillot of the Paris Tech Institute found Kumar's work intriguing, and invited Kumar to give a faculty presentation. That talk won a best lecture award and also got Kumar an offer for a visiting faculty position.
Those on Academia.edu also get valuable information about their own work. Hans von Storch is a climate scientist in Germany and used citation indexes which basically tell you who has quoted what. He says "...with Academia.edu I can see what is viewed, what is actually read or not. I learn something additional, something I would not know otherwise."
This valuable information that authors get actually shapes future research. Atul Gaikwad is a post-doc in electrical engineering at Berkeley. He decided to continue research on flexible batteries because of the volume of interest he noticed in his flexible battery papers on Academia.edu.
Speculation: How Academia.edu Will Make Money
This is where all of the lessons Price learned from his earlier ventures kick in. He is cagey about exact plans and will not speak for the record, but consider some plausible scenarios.
Academia.edu is privy to a vast amount of information on who is reading what and what consensus opinion finds valuable. Let's say a medical researcher comes up with a promising way to treat pancreatic cancer. That paper generates significant interest from leading scientists all over the world. Normally a pharmaceutical company would not know of such interest for months or years. Would it be willing to pay heavily for this information so it could immediately begin research and development for a potential new drug? Would this same company pay to know who is knowledgeable about the field so it can hire him or her as a consultant or license his intellectual property?
The variations are endless. Most LinkedIn members use that site for free. Some pay premiums for greater access to information and ability to contact others. But human resources departments of companies and recruiters want all that information and more, and pay through the nose for the privilege and consider it money well spent. Academia.edu plans something similar.
Will Price be able to pull it off? He just received $11.1 million in funding from a consortium led by Khosla Ventures so some very savvy investors are betting on him.
Price says what really matters to him is the difference the site could make in the world. Maybe some collaboration that started on Academia.edu helps solve the global warming problem and saves millions of lives by preventing flooding in Bangladesh. Perhaps some bright, unknown, scientist in a remote region comes up with a radically new way of filtering water inexpensively, and improves the lives of those at the very bottom of the economic ladder. Anything could happen. The possibilities are endless.
So Price has the answer to his big question. Yes, he is finally doing something that can genuinely help humanity. Yes, he can hold his head high and be proud of his work.
What would happen if you asked yourself the same questions?