Just a few years ago, an entrepreneur with a goal to publish every scientific research paper on the Internet would have seemed ambitious, maybe even a little crazy.
Above: At Academia.edu’s San Francisco office.
However, with the rise of online education and leading universities like Stanford and MIT publishing tutorials online, this now seems far more realistic. The White House has even spoken out in favor of online learning, with the Obama administration evaluating ways to lower the cost of higher education.
Richard Price, the British-born chief executive of Academia.edu, is that entrepreneur. But his idea no longer seems all that far-fetched, even to the most cautious investors. Today, Price secured $11.1 million in venture funding to grow Academia.edu, a website for researchers and academics to post studies and groundbreaking ideas.
Academia.edu launched five years ago as an online platform for academics to post papers. Since then, the company has seen its community grow to 4.5 million people. These members have created profiles with links to scientific papers as well as information about their background and intellectual interests.
Academia.edu isn’t just for researchers — it’s designed to be accessible to anyone. Similarly to Netflix or Amazon, the site recommends relevant papers to you based on your areas of interest, and the papers you’ve previously clicked on. According to Price, the site currently boasts about 8 million monthly unique visitors.
I signed up to Academia.edu via Facebook, added interests to my profile like “technology and journalism” and my alma mater and ended up with some fascinating papers. After getting caught up in a paper about how political journalists used Twitter to cover the 2012 presidential election, I asked Price for his top reads for techies. [He sent me three that are worth skimming -- see right.
The Oxford University graduate no longer buys into the idea of a "knowledge elite." He has shifted gears from academia to tech (and from Oxford to Silicon Valley) and now believes that precocious high-school students are capable of dreaming up creative solutions that may have eluded Harvard scholars.
"Innovation can come out of the most unexpected, craziest places," he said.
Price wants to break academic research out of the Ivory Tower and show the brightest minds that their work deserves a broader audience than stodgy research journals. A key benefit for academics is that they can review the academic papers that are "trending" over the week, and gain more recognition for their research.
Related: We featured Price in our profile of the "poshest entrepreneurs" in Silicon Valley. Read the story here.
One of Price's favorite stories is about a 15-year-old kid from Michigan who invented a test for pancreatic cancer that is 100 times more sensitive and 26,000 times cheaper than current tests on the market. Price hopes that Academia.edu's team will pinpoint and surface these kinds of ideas.
Above: Academia.edu isn’t focused on revenue just yet.
But for now, the company is primarily focused on building its product and growing the membership. Price has revenue goals for the future; for instance, he is currently investigating whether pharmaceutical giants will pay Academia.edu to access “scientific breakthroughs.”
However, Price specifically approached Khosla Ventures to invest, as the firm won’t pressure him to focus on revenue just yet.
Price claims that Khosla’s partners are passionate about the mission to “accelerate science.” Indeed, Khosla does appear to be increasingly open to investing in startups that have a social mission and a business model. This is often referred to as “impact investing” and is also associated with firms like Omidyar Ventures.
Academia.edu will also use the funding to recruit and hire talented data scientists to mine thousands of research papers and find the “diamonds in the rough,” according to Price. He admits that curation is still a challenge — not every paper uploaded to Academia.edu will be of high quality. But the algorithm should be able to determine the best stuff and ensure it gets promoted to a broad audience.
Previous investors, including Spark Capital and True Ventures, also participated in the funding round. Khosla’s newest partner Ben Ling will join the company’s board.
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