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'Facebook for scientists' an Internet hit

By STEFAN NICOLA, UPI Europe Correspondent   |   March 8, 2011 at 1:38 PM   |   Comments

BERLIN, March 8 (UPI) -- Researchgate, a "Facebook for scientists" with 800,000 members, hopes to revolutionize the science community by connecting the smartest brains in the world through the Internet.

Back in 2007, virologist Ijad Madisch from Germany was researching at Harvard Medical School in Boston. When he realized he had a hard time finding and collaborating with experts from other disciplines to help solve his research problems, he called Soeren Hofmayer, a fellow virologist and friend from his native Germany, to talk about his new idea.

"I felt there needed to be a network for scientists so they could connect better," Madisch said.

Together, Madisch and Hofmayer developed Researchgate, an online community for scientists from all fields and countries. Launched from Boston, the site went live in May 2008 and has grown ever since.

"A year ago, around 25 people signed up per day. Today, it's 2,500 people per day. We now have 800,000 members and expect to reach 1 million within the next eight to 10 weeks," Madisch said Tuesday as he was leading a tour of his company's new offices in central Berlin, a few steps from where the Berlin Wall once divided East and West.

Researchgate's move from the United States to Berlin is unusual. It came in late 2010, shortly after Benchmark Capital and Accel Partners -- the companies that funded eBay, Facebook and Twitter in their early stages -- decided to pump several million dollars into the start-up. Matt Cohler, a Facebook executive and now partner at Benchmark Capital, told Madisch that Researchgate could either move to San Francisco or Berlin. The virologist chose the latter.

The German capital is well-known for its creative scene, bustling nightlife and cheap rents. Unlike in Silicon Valley, however, a start-up doesn't have to compete with established giants Google and Facebook when hiring new talent, Madisch said.

"Berlin is developing into a European Silicon Valley," Madisch said.

Scientists sign up with a profile that reveals their research field, publications and awards. They are able to communicate -- and even have virtual conferences -- within one of more than 3,000 groups that can be as specialized as "p53" (a protein that protects a cell from cancer) or as broad as "methodology."

That way, a virologist in the United States can post a question that a bacteriologist in India might answer, possibly leading to collaboration or a quicker scientific breakthrough.

Users can search for journals within the community and post new articles on their own micro-blogging site. They can post their own failures so that others don't repeat them, Madisch said.

These features have turned Researchgate into the hottest science community on the Internet.

The company employs around 50 people, most of them under 30 and creative minds from all over the world. Researchgate has a press officer from Norway, a Web designer from New Jersey and interns from France, Sweden and Britain.

Yet while Researchgate continues to grow, Madisch knows that he has to solve the problem that plagues most Web communities: How to make a profit?

Madisch says the venture capitalists from Silicon Valley haven't set deadlines for when Researchgate has to be profitable. "Luckily, we are free to develop first," he said.

Researchgate has a few ideas: It has launched an integrated career platform where companies, for a fee, can look for qualified employees. The start-up has also been linking up with universities and scientific organizations that are using Researchgate as an Intranet in for-profit partnerships.

Meanwhile, Madisch has stopped working as a virologist but he said that's OK.

"I can have a much bigger impact on science by connecting the individuals," he said. "I feel I can make a real difference that way."

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