Boston Spawns, Loses Another Social Network... For Scientists

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Ijad Madisch couldn't figure out why his experiment wasn’t working. The Harvard University research fellow knew it was something about how he was setting up the medical imaging experiment. The algorithms and materials he was using weren’t quite right.

"And these are the small things, which in science, you know, cost you a lot of time," Madisch said.

ResearchGate photo
ResearchGate CEO Ijad Madisch, left, and CTO Horst Fickenscher at the company's main office. (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)

His advisor didn’t know what to do (it wasn't his specialty). Nobody else in Madisch's lab worked on the same sort of stuff. None of his friends could help, either. This was a few years ago, and Madisch knew there must be somebody out there.

"I was so frustrated," he said. "I said, 'there has to be something online where I go, where people can present themselves as a scientist, and where they put their information about their research and their publications and you can search for it.'"

Madisch wanted to make such a place — a social network for scientists. But unlike Facebook, it wasn't supposed to be about reconnecting with the kid who sat next to you in organic chemistry in college. Instead, it's for sharing knowledge and practices with peers, to make 'doing science' more productive.

The funny thing is, when his Harvard fellowship ended, Madisch went back to Germany, where he’s from. He wanted a half-time research job, so he could work on this technology idea on the side, but his professor there said no.

"He told me I should focus on my academic career," Madisch recalled, "and not this weird stuff, this strange stuff."

"In German, it’s Firlefanz. Don’t work on the Firlefanz."

Translation: ornamental filler.

But Madisch knew his social network idea wasn’t Firlefanz. So he came back to Boston, a place that is great at giving life to new ideas. His Harvard advisor was very supportive and gave him that part-time research gig.

Madisch started his social network for scientists, called ResearchGate. But he said his goal was not to make billions of dollars.

"My goal: to win the Nobel Prize," Madisch said matter-of-factly. "And I really believe in that. If we think that ResearchGate will accelerate research in all the different fields, it will change the speed of science significantly in the future. I definitely think that ResearchGate could win the Nobel Prize for that one day."

Madisch's big idea wowed investors. ResearchGate got funded by a former Facebook executive and the same venture capital firm that backed Twitter.


Of the more than 800,000 people who have signed up as ResearchGate members, one is Caroline Moore-Kochlacs, a Boston University neuroscientist.

Moore-Kochlacs said those other social networks, Facebook and LinkedIn, are great, but not for getting science done. On those sites, she said, people feel like they have to be clever, or if they ask questions, it's what camera to buy for going on vacation.

"They’re never anything to do with science," she said, even though a third of her LinkedIn contacts are scientists.

Moore-Kochlacs likes ResearchGate because she can ask questions, like what reagent to use in a certain chemical reaction. She said she can also find out what labs are working on before they publish. Or, she said, just get up to date on what people have published.

"The scientific literature is so huge at this point that it’s really impossible to get through everything in your topic area," Moore-Kochlacs said. "People really rely on hearing it from other people."

Not every ResearchGate user is enamored.

"Sometimes I get these e-mails that are like: 'Dear Sirs: I’m writing a dissertation on public health, please advise'," said Kim Bertrand, an epidemiologist at the Harvard School of Public Health. "I don’t need that. I’m not really seeing the value in this."

Bertrand said she's content thus far with her own offline network of fellow researchers and advisors.

After all, "I have a email address and can email anyone I want," she said, conceding that not all scientists are located in such strong scientific hotbeds as the Boston area.

ResearchGate said it is working hard to get more members to reach the sort of critical mass social networks need. And it’s trying to do so quickly. The company has several competitors. One of them, called Epernicus, is based in Boston.

But ResearchGate is not in Boston anymore. It's in Berlin. Not Berlin, N.H. — Berlin, Germany.

"Either you go to Berlin, or you come to San Francisco, you can decide," Madisch said, referring to the choice that his investors gave him.

Why not Boston? Their advice, even coming from Silicon Valley, was that the high salaries and rents in Boston aren’t worth it.

Madisch decided not to take his company to San Francisco, where he’d have to pay top dollar for top Web developers, and then have to fret about them leaving for Google or Facebook or Apple next door. Berlin offered cheap rents, lower salaries and an up-and-coming start-up scene. The promise of a cool, European city actually helped Madisch lure his product manager away from a Silicon Valley start-up.

"I probably would have worked with ResearchGate if they were in San Francisco, too," said Zuzana Federkova. "But being in Berlin is like, amazing."

ResearchGate photo
ResearchGate's new offices in Berlin feature amenities such as free refreshments typical in American start-up companies. (Curt Nickisch/WBUR)

At the company’s new offices, Madisch offers free food and drink, an artifact of Boston's start-up culture that he exported to Berlin.

He also gives his employees stock options, an incentive that is not at all usual in German tech firms.

ResearchGate may never become the indispensable social network for scientists it’s striving to be. And it may never revolutionize scientific collaboration. And it may never win the Nobel Prize, like Ijad Madisch hopes it will.

But there it is, in Berlin, a company that was conceived and nurtured in Boston. Madisch said he can do far more for science by building ResearchGate than he could as a lone researcher.

"My goal was to create something big in this world," he said. "And I saw that this is the chance."

This program aired on March 24, 2011.

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Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



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