VCC alumnus company Newsflo has recently been acquired by publishing giant Elsevier and will be combined with Mendeley, an academic social network that facilitates collaboration.
Newsflo was started by Ben Kaube and Freddie Witherden in 2012 with the aim to help scientists measure the social impact of their research. It is the first VCC alumnus company to be acquired.
Freddie Witherden (left) and Ben Kaube (right) in the Mendeley office
The system scans 55,000 English-language web outlets for news and connects them to individuals and specific items of scholarly research.
In a short e-mail interview, Kaube, now CEO at Newsflo, highlights the researcher-centred development:
"From day one we were working closely with researchers and university press officers [...] Way before we had a working product we were showing people wireframes and mock-ups, trying to get as much feedback as possible before we started coding.”
Newsflo began as a product of Kaube and Witherden’s participation in a hackathon organised by the Imperial Entrepreneurs Society, an event where entrants have 24 hours, pizza, and copious amounts of caffeine to invent an app to help Imperial scientists. After presenting to a panel of judges, the pair was invited to join the 2013 edition of the Venture Catalyst Challenge, or VCC, to develop their business idea.
The VCC is a pre-accelerator programme run by Imperial Create Lab, where students learn the necessary elements of starting and running their own science-based business, such as prototyping, developing a business plan, and pitching to investors.
“The VCC was very helpful in the early days of newsflo. Neither me, nor my co-founder Freddie had ever set up a business before, so it was very useful to meet experienced entrepreneurs who had already been through the process” says Kaube.
After the VCC, Kaube and Witherden continued working on both their company and their PhDs. The two were able to secure funding from Digital Science through their Catalyst Grant scheme, which allowed them to bring in additional developers and build a Minimum Viable Product, or MVP: a version of the app that contains only the necessary elements to make it work.
“Once we had an MVP ready we started looking for early adopters to provide feedback and help us refine our platform”, explains Kaube, “Speaking to your users and getting positive feedback is extremely satisfying. It’s the same feeling you get when your research suddenly 'clicks' and you get a result that’s been elusive for months.”
But the similarities they found between being doctoral students and entrepreneurs didn’t stop at these ‘eureka moments’.
“Both PhDs and founding startups are famously demanding, so we’ve had to manage our time very carefully. Some days you're running between meetings with your supervisor and pitches to investors” remembers Kaube.
An apparent key to their success was their environment: the two have had support from their supervisors, as well as from the entrepreneurial community at Imperial, where they exchanged experiences and contacts with other startups.
Newsflo’s core mission, to support scientists in engaging the public with their research, was never forgotten and, eventually, the time came for the company to grow. In talking to Elsevier and the Mendeley team, they discovered a common goal. Joining Elsevier, then, “was the obvious next step”.
The newsflo platform is expected to be integrated with Elsevier’s Mendeley, where researchers can manage, share and collaborate on research papers via the cloud; newsflo’s data will feed into Mendeley member profiles. Moving forward, the platform may be expanded beyond the English-language news sphere.
"With Elsevier's resources behind us, we'll be able to scale our operations and reach many more researchers than would have been possible as a small startup”, Kaube explains in a WIRED article, “We want to make sure that researchers who engage with the public via the media receive recognition for this valuable service."
Imperial Create Lab is now accepting applications for this year’s VCC. The deadline is on 26th January. Learn more at imperialcreatelab.com/vcc2015.