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Science entrepreneurism: research support from outside the university

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Science entrepreneurism: research support from outside the university by Kristen Schroeder, PhD

Have you ever heard about a postdoc who started a company and wondered what it takes to be an entrepreneur? Have you ever been 40 comments deep in a sci-twitter thread about peer review and wondered how it’s possible to change the system? Over the past months at scientifyRESEARCH I’ve been working on the Innovative Support for Researchers series for the blog; a collection of interviews with the founders of start-ups within the research support services community. It’s given me a look at how different start-ups are working on making research easier, more open, and accessible, and I want to share with you what I’ve learned about how research is being supported from outside the university. 

Research support from start-ups 

Maybe you’ve heard of more established research support companies like Benchling for keeping track of your cloning, or Quartzy for lab consumables inventory – and you’ve surely heard of scientifyRESEARCH! In the last decade, there has been a rise in companies that are helping researchers keep their groups running smoothly. During the course of talking to some of these new companies, I was impressed to learn that there are tools being developed for almost every part of the research workflow, with some interesting solutions that I’m hoping to start using in my own research.  

Tools to help with the entire research process 

So what sorts of companies are out there? There’s a detailed list at the end of the article, but to summarize; we talked to companies like Litmaps, Audemic, Iris.ai, and OA.mg, that all help with accessing and learning from published research articles, which can be useful right from the beginning of a project. There are tools like SciFlow and SciScore, which help in creating manuscripts that are ready to be submitted, and PeerRef for peer review of preprints. For supporting research communication, we spoke with Every Author Publishing, supporting written communication, SamSpeaksScience for support in giving presentations, as well as Bees in Rain and Sci Ani, who create beautiful science films and animations to help disseminate research to different audiences. We also talked to Scientists Need More, who support researchers by giving training in research management; Global Campus, a platform for finding collaborators and experts via their publications; Enabla, who support open lectures and courses from experts; and Radioteraquiz, who help medical professionals to stay on top of their field. This is just a sample of the companies that exist to help make research easier! 

AI support for the research process

During this interview series I was also impressed by the number of ways in which AI is being brought into the research environment. From the Iris.ai research assistant that is specially trained to assist with scientific inquiry, to Litmaps which generates visual maps of how research is connected, there is a big change in how the body of scientific literature can be summarized and digested by researchers. I think it’s necessary to develop an understanding now of the tools becoming available to access scientific knowledge. Machines can sift through data and papers faster than humans, and it’s important to get informed on what that means for you and your field and to be aware of use, limitations, and implicit bias in these systems. Computational power is being leveraged to give researchers time to perform and communicate their research, and the field is changing quickly.

Research solves problems, and so do entrepreneurs 

When talking to founders I met a group of ambitious and passionate people who had put their problem-solving skills to use outside of the university. Many of the founders I interviewed were scientists themselves, who when asked what led them to start their companies, said they wanted to improve an experience they had when doing their own research, or focus on helping others with a particular part of the research experience. Maybe it’s no surprise that people who begin their careers with a seed of curiosity or passion to discover and improve things wonder how the process of research itself can be improved. Of course, there are stories about scientists creating businesses around enzymes they’ve discovered or technology they’ve built, but I found it encouraging to hear from so many people who saw strain or difficulties in research and built a way to improve it for others. 

There are many skills that transfer between research and building a start-up. Most of our CVs contain skills like making data-driven decisions, iteration and optimization, problem solving, collaboration and project management. Scientists are also familiar with stepping into the unknown and trying something new, which can lend itself to creating a business from scratch. With reports showing only 30% of (U.K.-based) PhD students remain in academic research three years on, it’s important to be aware of all options that might be available.

Your research and science entrepreneurship 

After working on this series, what I would like to share with my fellow researchers would be to look around and see what sorts of research support tools are available that can make things easier for you. Maybe not everything in our sampling of support service start-ups works for you, but it might make sense to start collaborating on papers with your supervisor and co-authors in a platform like SciFlow. Maybe you can help your field by being an expert reviewer with PeerRef. Maybe it’s useful to host your upcoming summer research course on a platform like Enabla, or ask your University or institution’s research office about getting time management coaching from Scientists Need More.  

And if after you’ve gathered some support for your own research, you still see a persistent problem, what if you could build something to fix it for yourself and your community? Many of the people I interviewed spoke passionately about their goals of connecting people, improving access, inclusion, diversity, and sharing research with everyone. It’s not an easy road, but if you have an idea and it sounds exciting to develop it, what if you applied your research skills to investigating the start-up world, or took your idea to your university innovation centre for advice? 

Innovative Support for Researchers Blog Interview Series 

Scientists Need More! – research skills for scientists 

Every Author – training for great academic writing 

OA.mg – find and access research papers at lightning speed 

PeerRef – journal-independent open peer review 

Global Campus – a platform to find researchers 

Iris.ai – a scientific AI trained to help researchers work 

SciFlow– technology made for creating research publications 

Audemic – access research articles through listening 

SamSpeaksScience – presentation skills to help your audience navigate your knowledge 

Bees in Rain – exploring the intersection of science and film 

Sci Ani – amplifying research communication with science animations 

Litmaps – see research literature by its connections 

SciScore – an assistant for reliable methods reporting 

Enabla – interactive, inclusive, and open science lectures 

Radioteraquiz – gamified learning for medical professionals 

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