Startup of the Week: Figshare (Wired UK)


Mark Hahnel


Figshare
wants to open up scientific research and data to the world. The
idea was first born in 2010 while founder Mark Hahnel was studying
at Imperial College London, before a 2012 launch. He wanted to
develop a way to share all kinds of datasets — digital and
otherwise — in an easy-to-use, opensource way. At that point it
was just to “allow scientists and researchers like me to get credit
and recognition for all their work,” says Hahnel. Two years on and
the platform now has employees in the UK, US and Romania and serves
hundreds of thousands of researchers a month, hosting more than 1.5
million files. While the basic platform is free, for a fee
additional services are unlocked. Some of the biggest and most
prestigious scientific journals in the world also use Figshare to
store and visualise their data, including PLOS, Nature Publishing
Group, Taylor & Francis and F1000. “We also partner with some
of the largest and most prestigious academic institutions in the
world to help them better manage their research data,” adds
Hahnel.

The entrepreneur believes that the more data researchers can
publish online, publically, the more sure we will be of the
veracity of that data. “The more raw data available, the greater
the transparency and the easier it is to verify the results.”

Founder: Mark Hahnel
Launched: 2012
Headquarters: London
Staff: 16
Funding: From Digital Science, the global
technology division of Macmillan Science & Education

Where did you get the idea for the
business?


I first came up with the idea for Figshare whilst working on my
PhD in Stem Cell biology at Imperial College London in 2010. During
the course I created a plethora of materials and data — figures,
documents, graphs, datasets, posters and video. I created Figshare
as a place where I could share ALL my work and make it available to
ANYONE. 

What is your USP?

Figshare is the only platform that allows researchers to upload
any academic file — images, videos, datasets, posters,
presentations, papers, theses or even software code. Once the file
is uploaded we visualise it within the browser, this is important
to allow researchers to view files quickly and without the need of
third party software. We give every uploaded file a unique
persistent link called a digital object identifier (DOI). This is
the gold standard of referencing in academia and ensures that
everything on Figshare is citable in the long term.

What problem do you solve?

Today researchers disseminate their results through academic
papers, a format that has barely evolved in centuries. Researchers
create a vast amount of data in various formats but are forced to
share their results through pdfs — static documents with limited
functionality. They also deserve to get credit for the bulk of
their work that currently goes unpublished. Figshare is a platform
where researchers can store, share and get credit for all of their
research.

Governments, funders and publishers are also increasingly
introducing open data mandates, which require researchers to make
all of their data publicly available.

How do you plan to make money?

We make money in three ways. First, there is a Premium product
available which gives researchers 20GB of private online storage
space and private collaborative spaces for up to 20 research
collaborators. Second, we enable publishers to host large amounts
of the data behind their online articles, with no impact on their
own infrastructure (Figshare hosts them in the cloud).

Lastly, there has been a global push by global governments to
make academic research data open and accessible and a growing
mandate from a wide group of funders for researchers and academic
institutions to better manage, disseminate and share their digital
research outputs. This is increasingly becoming a mandate for
receiving funding, so Figshare launched Figshare for Institutions
last year to securely host research data in the cloud, privately or
publicly. It has garnered interest from universities and research
institutions across the globe, from Europe to the US and
Australia.

What is the incentive to pay for the Premium
service?


With Figshare premium individual users get more storage space and
enhanced group collaboration features, which are ideal for larger
teams and geographically dispersed research groups.

Who do you view as your
competitors? 


Our biggest competitors are generic free hosting and data sharing
services such as Dropbox. Some academic institutions have started
to build their own institutional repositories at enormous financial
costs and man-hours, at much greater expense than investing in a
product like Figshare. Some other scientific online repositories
include Dryad and academia.edu; but neither of them offers the full
spectrum of services to end users, publishers and academic
institutions.

How would you sum up your company ethos?

Our mission is to improve and open up the dissemination and
discovery of scientific research.

What’s the biggest misconception about your
business?


Many people think it’s only for making your data publicly
available, but we also have robust functionality for the day-to-day
management of research data including private sharing and
collaboration. Another misconception is that a figure has to be a
static image, there is no reason why “fig. 1” couldn’t be a video,
dataset, computer code or any file that is relevant to the research
and gives the reader better context. 

What pushed you to stop talking about launching a
startup and actually do it?


When I was studying for my PhD I was frustrated at the lack of
modern techniques and technologies available to me within academia,
and was determined to change it. I had the idea for Figshare and,
with my basic coding skills, hacked together a proof of concept. I
was introduced to Timo Hannay at Digital Science who offered me a
desk and a small budget to see what we could do with my idea. The
team worked hard and in close contact with the community to build a
solution that is innovative and disruptive but still practical.

How has the business developed since
then?


In three years we have grown from a company of four people with
one product and a small but passionate user base, to a team of
nearly 20 people with multiple products serving some of the largest
academic publishers and institutions in the world.  We are
used by 100,000s of researchers and we host over 1.5 million files,
most of which would not be publicly available without Figshare.

What has been the most challenging time for the
company?


Starting up!  I was finishing my PhD at the same time as
setting up the company.  I had no prior business experience,
but I understood the needs of researchers. 

How did you overcome that?

The first three Figshare team members all worked on building it
before we had even secured funding. Digital Science has provided us
with professional support including legal, financial, marketing and
more. With this guidance, we have tailored Figshare to provide
specific services for publishers and institutions, whilst staying
true to our original message around open research. 

Do you have any advice for dealing with potential
investors?


Don’t be afraid that you might look naïve if you ask what might
appear to be the stupid or obvious questions. Obvious questions can
result in honest answers.

What is the best piece of advice anyone has ever given
you?


“Never forget who you are” — Apu Nahasapeemapetilon’s parents in
The Simpsons.

Which businessperson do you most admire and
why?


Elon Musk is an obvious one. The cushion that Paypal provided him
with undoubtedly made him daring enough to start the companies that
every 12-year-old dreams of, but it still takes a certain kind of
unique person to turn them into commercial successes.

What is your biggest barrier to future
success?


Resistance to change in the academic community, it’s an old system
but with the right incentives we believe that change will come.

Where do you see the company – and academia — in ten
year’s time?


Academic research of the future will be more open and will be
served by better technology. Academic publishing will continue to
innovate and evolve to add value to and disseminate content in a
way we could have never imagined even five years ago.

For us the Shangri-La is a world where a group of researchers
generate new information based on new hypotheses, make it available
on Figshare and then others pull together the combined world’s
knowledge to look for new patterns and discoveries that the
original authors had not thought to look for. These data scientists
will need tools, which we have already made available on our open
API. I’d love to see more of these tools helping more people make
more discoveries, more often.

In an ideal world all scientific data would be open
source surely, but how is that a viable model — both in a business
sense, and also in terms of verifying data
stringently? 


We’d love all scientific data to be open source but realistically
commercial R&D firms aren’t likely to share our views. At the
very least all publically funded research should be openly
available and not trapped behind pay walls or sat on dusty
institutional servers. Open data is one way to avoid fake data, or
plagiarism. If everything was open, data forensics could be
performed, wide peer review and reproducibility of data can be
performed, especially in the more computational subjects.

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25 July 2014 | 3:55 pm – Source: wired.co.uk

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