As I continue this blog-form investigation of technology and its effect on humans as a species, I am also carrying along with me my science social network idea. I recently spoke with Derek Brand, the Director of Business Development at the New York Academy of Sciences, to hear his insights on science as a business and get some input on my networking idea. Here’s our conversation all typed up for ya:
Zach Gottlieb: So, what is your main role at the New York Academy of Sciences?
Derek Brand: I’ve got two main tasks at the Academy. My first obligation is to get companies to enter into partnerships with us and to fund stuff that we do. So my primary goal is revenue generation, and to add more value to those partnerships. A partnership with us entails a greater or more complete relationship between the Academy and a particular company, so the company’s scientists become members of the Academy, and it’s possible for their top scientists to sit on one of our steering committees. When it comes down to it we also just try to add additional value. So the other thing I do is, where possible, is I try to leverage the networks I’ve built and networks that the Academy has built to be more valuable for our partners.
So whenever I go out to speak in the public, I make sure I’m best representing the Academy and myself. I’m a bit of an ambassador among other things. It’s a duel role of fundraising and some conglomeration of ambassador/connector/networker, so I do whatever I can to make sure people keep working with us.
ZG: Does that involve the Academy’s “Science Meets Business” program? <!—[endif]—>
DB: That’s something that’s a little more formal. It’s difficult for us to get brand new ventures off the ground sometimes because we don’t have a huge number of people to do it. But that’s something we’ve been trying to build now for a little while. The premise is that there should be greater level of connectivity at least within New York between science, finance, and entrepreneurs. And we look at the places within that spectrum that can play a role, and I think there’s a good chunk of opportunity there for us to be valuable within that community. That should bring us more opportunities to have a sort of different subset of people involved with us. Obviously what we hope to do, whenever we start something new, is have it be valuable in the three ways: first, be valuable to our community and members; two, it should be financially lucrative for us, because not everything we do makes money, so obviously we’d like to have programs that are good enough to support the academy and even bolster programs like “Science for the Public” and other programs that don’t make quite enough money to be profitable; and third, it would be valuable for us to get new people interested in what we do. So if it’s valuable to the community it brings in more money, and when you bring in new people, you bring in new interest, new potential funders. The most valuable thing that we can do is get a partner that has a vision that is shared with us and basically live that vision with us over a longer duration.
ZG: Are you interested in communicating with both corporate and start-ups?
DB: Absolutely. I view start-ups as an interesting part of our ecosystem because they’re the people who are usually on the cutting edge of innovation and really pushing the boundaries. And these are the people that our corporate partners are always interested in because they’re interested in who is doing the best and brightest stuff. And these corporate partners understand that who is in the pipeline is either going to be their competition or somebody they’re going to want to partner with. So I think having them involved with us is a very valuable thing. We try to involve all stakeholders within a given area of science, so for most of our conferences you’ll have not only academic scientists, but industry people, finance people, and others, and you get a very interesting cross section of people that is not so heavily weight towards one position.
ZG: So how did you get started in this job as the connector/networker?
DB: I kind of fell into it, actually. My background is in start-up companies for early-stage technology. I lived in Boston and my wife and I moved here when she got a faculty position at Columbia University. So when I moved to New York I got introduced to this position via one of my colleague. I was introduced to who used to work with Rene Baston, who’s now my boss, and she said she was looking for someone really entrepreneurial, and I thought the role sounded interesting and was something I could do well, so I took it. I thought it’d be a valuable role. I wasn’t totally sure where exactly it was going to go. It took me awhile to realize it, but the fact that we have a neutral platform for discourse—our mission is solely based around advancing science—it takes a lot of the other pretenses out of the discussions and gives us the ability to facilitate things and act in such a way where we come with no kind of political drive or aspiration. It’s an interesting vantage point to have.
ZG: So we’ve covered business networking for science, but what about social networking for the science community? I’ve been thinking about ways to create a science social network, and one of the biggest questions I’ve been struggling with is, where would the revenue going to come from?
DB: Ah, yes. Well, I think question of where the revenue is going to come from is a valid question. I have a couple of different views. I’m interested to hear the nuts and bolts of what you’d think it would look like. Because from a social networking perspective, one of the nice pieces of that is that it’s not necessarily infrastructure heavy, anyone can put up a website. I think from a micro-perspective, you can start to do something that you don’t even need a business model per say. I mean if you’re going to come out of school and look to do this as a business right away, yeah you should probably have a pretty good idea of what you want to do. But I think from the perspective of building something, the social network stuff can very easily start out as an experiment and then figure out where you go with it. But that’s easier to do wants you have some sort of group or following and have some sort of idea of what the community looks like. So what is your idea?
ZG: Well, it’s not entirely developed yet. I want it to be a little like LabSpaces.net, or at least what LabSpaces.net set out to be—I spoke with the founder of it, Brian Krueger, and he admitted it has become more of a news aggregator than a social network. I want to create a place where scientists can sign up and have a profile similar to something like Facebook, that explains where you’re working, where you’re degrees are from, where you’re interests are, and then try to facilitate some sort of discussion about science and the work they’re doing. But more than just facilitating discussion between scientists, I want it to be place where scientists can discuss their work with the public. I think there’s a lot of room for more connections to be made, and I think that a lot of people are afraid of science or are disinterested because they feel disconnected.
DB: Okay, I have a couple ideas. One of them is a program here at the Academy, and one is a website that is doing something in the right space that you’re thinking of. So we’ve started a program called “Scientists Without Borders,” and that is aimed at people who are working in the developing world or people working on projects that will help the developing world. It’s sort of what you describe, in that people can develop profiles, and it was initially meant to be a system for recognizing unmet needs and trying to form collaboration for integrated aid. So an example we use a lot is companies providing medication to a village of people suffering from dysentery. It’d be really useful for that company to see if there were people doing water projects in the area. So the basic point is to drive better solutions and more integrated aid into the developing world. And yes, the business model is difficult. We don’t have a recurring business model yet, and we’re thinking about those things, but from a functionality standpoint, it is very, very good.
The second community that I thought of is PatientsLikeMe.org, which I think started as a discussion group for people who have particular illnesses to talk about their illness, or how they feel, or what kind of medication they’re on. It connects people with a similar condition and lets them discuss how they’re feeling or what they’re taking and what is working to help them.
ZG: That’s interesting, I wasn’t aware of that site. It makes me realize though, that there’s quite a bit out there already doing this kind of thing.
DB: Yes, but remember, it doesn’t have to be new. There are a few out there already, and I think there’s certain ones that are done pretty well, but I thin there’s room for a lot of new stuff like this if it’s done well and if it’s done in an organized way. And at the same time, it doesn’t have to start big; you can find groups of people who are passionate about a particular area of science. You can definitely start small. And that’s how you build up a group of people who are generally interested in what you are trying to do. So in terms of thinking about this, think about different things you can do, different communities you can reach, and think about what kind of value your exchange is gong to provide.
I think that it is difficult is to work in generalities with something like this. Unless you’re creating a platform that changes the way that mass-groups of people interact, things like Facebook or Twitter, I think the more that you have honed in the needs of a particular set of people, using a particular set of tools, that’s probably the best way to test your idea and figure out what will work. There’s a lot of kinds of groups out there, patients and even doctors and scientists, look at who’s got ideas that aren’t being communicated and who would be the people looking to receive those ideas, and that is something that I think sounds like something that could be pretty useful.
ZG: And how much do you think the poor communication abilities that tend to exists among many scientists will be a factor?
DB: Well it depends on what kind of things they’re going to discuss. If you have someone doing hardcore particle physics, it’s unlikely they are going to share their latest equation breakdown with someone off the street, and it’s unlikely that someone off the street would even be interested. So I think it depends on the forum. If the forum is centered on a conversation that the scientists want to have and people want to listen to, it will be well received. But the harder you have to get both sides to participate in what you’re doing, the more difficult it’s going to be to make it a success. So if you can find the applications and areas where there’s good synergy, where both sides want to hear the other one, then you’re in a really good spot. If you can’t, that goes a long way towards shaping your idea. What you’ll find is as you start to do things, you might say “well, nobody seems to be really responding when we do this, but when we do it this way, people seem to get fired up” and that’s when you know you’ve hit on something. But you won’t get there until you try something in the first place.
ZG: What are some of other big problems that certain models like these tend to face?
DB: To be honest, I’m not sure exactly why things like this don’t work. I would say the business model is probably one. A lot of times when people are looking to start something, it’s not necessarily proven and the scalability is difficult. I think it takes work to try to build a viable community and try to provide value for stuff like that. And there’s going to be a lot of blood, sweat, and tears to get the first people to start using it, and then once it starts to grow, you have to start figuring out how to manage things. So what a lot of web business and social media run into is how do you monetize it, where is the money going to come form, and again, who’s going to pay for it.
ZG: Yeah that was my next question.
DB: To be honest, I really have no idea. But until you figure out what the value is that you’re bringing and what the group is that you’re really serving, you probably don’t know what that’s going to be. So at the end of the day, if you don’t know what that value is, you’re just trying to sell something to people rather than trying to provide something actually valuable.
ZG: For start-ups and entrepreneurs, what recommendations would you have? What makes an entrepreneur successful?
DB: Well I don’t know if I’m really the best person to answer that question. There are a lot of successful people out there who have gone down a more entrepreneurial path than me, but I have the absolute utmost respect for people that have gone out and started their business and run something successfully. So, I don’t really know what makes a good entrepreneur, but I do think at the end of the day, we need people who are thinking creatively how to do things and how to do things better. More entrepreneurs than not is definitely a good thing.