iAMscientist, Backed by George Whitesides, Tries to Help Firms and Institutes Find Top Talent

2/23/11Follow @gthuang

If your name is Borya Shakhnovich, people tend to make assumptions about you. One, they don’t want to play you in competitive chess. Two, they wouldn’t be terribly surprised if you introduced yourself by saying something like, “I am scientist.”

OK, I’m stereotyping here (a real time-saver, I know), but at least one of those assumptions has some basis in fact. Shakhnovich is the founder and CEO of Brookline, MA-based iAMscientist, a global community and resource site for researchers and institutions in science, technology, and medicine. He has raised $1 million in seed financing from angel investors including George Whitesides, the famed Harvard University chemist and co-founder of more than a dozen companies including Genzyme (which was acquired last week by Sanofi-Aventis for some $20 billion).

What iAMscientist does is give researchers and institutions some interesting new tools to connect with each other. The idea is to create an online community and directory of top-tier people so that research teams, companies, and other organizations can find the right person to answer a difficult question, decipher a new paper, or lead a research project. All of this is especially important for interdisciplinary ventures—like when biologists team up with physicists, computer scientists, or electrical engineers to model things like genetic pathways or disease mechanisms, and then someone wants to commercialize the findings.

“We provide an organization with the ability to find that one person who is the foremost expert in an obscure area—our value is in that matching mechanism,” Shakhnovich says. Some of the most valuable knowledge and experience that researchers have “isn’t really in their papers, it’s in their heads,” he says. “You want to get in touch with them and maintain a relationship.”

Academic social networks are not new, of course. Services like Academia.edu, Epernicus (Boston-based), Labmeeting (founded by a Harvard grad), Nature Network, Pronetos, ResearchGate (which started in Boston but recently moved to Germany), and, to some extent, LinkedIn, all help connect researchers. As academics were the first big group to populate the Web with their faculty pages, perhaps it’s surprising that there isn’t a unified social site for them. On the other hand, the combination of Google, university websites, and e-mail lists has been mostly good enough.

Until now. I’m broad-brushing here, but academic disciplines have become so specialized—and there are so many new journals and papers being published, especially in biology and medicine—that it has become exceedingly difficult for researchers to keep up with what other groups are doing, even within their own field. Just like the rest of us, scientists face a serious information overload (and, some say, underload) problem. And their careers depend on finding and digesting all that information.

iAMscientist differs from other similar-looking sites in that it’s focused less on networking among peers and more on helping institutions find the right people, Shakhnovich says. And its members tend to be senior faculty and elite researchers, rather than junior faculty, students, or people with casual interest in a field. “We have the top of the pyramid,” he says. “Our [network] is closed, more like Facebook in the early days. You have to be invited in and verified as an expert in your field.”

Shakhnovich (who also goes by Boris) seems like the right guy to work on this project, because he has firsthand experience leading research teams and building a network. From 2004 to 2006, he was an assistant professor at Boston University, teaching courses in bioinformatics. He then did a research fellowship at Harvard, focused on doing experiments in systems biology. But he eventually tired of the slow pace of lab work and left his budding academic career to become an entrepreneur.

“It was really boring waiting for things to grow,” he says. “The majority of your time is waiting for yeast to shake.”

So in 2008 he started a company called Orwik, which stands for “organic wisdom knowledgebase.” The goal was to help scientists and institutions accelerate their discoveries and “translational research” for clinical applications by providing online tools for presenting scientific results, managing collaborative projects, and developing community networks. (Xconomy mentioned the project back in 2009, when Orwik was in Dogpatch Labs.)

As a business, that didn’t really go anywhere. “We made the classic entrepreneur mistake, which is build the product and then try to find the customers,” he says. What institutions really needed, he says, was a tool to help them build the right teams to tackle specific problems.

From that feedback, iAMscientist was born—starting with profiles of scientists that began on Orwik. Researchers can log in and create their own pages—with their publications, expert areas, and so forth—but they have to be invited by other members first. So far about 25,000 scientists and doctors (about 60 percent are in the U.S.) have created profiles on the site, including department chairmen, institute directors, senior faculty, and at least a couple of Nobel Laureates, Shakhnovich says.

The company also has a broader, global database of millions of researchers and their specialties, which is based on public records, he says. Organizing this sort of information is what iAMscientist is really about—being able to serve up the right expert for the right problem (and the right price). Companies and other organizations pay to post job listings and other opportunities, reach out to network members, and search through the iAMscientist database.

One recent example: A financial institution was doing due diligence on a technology for developing an AIDS vaccine. The iAMscientist team used its own platform to find a dozen people with relevant experience in vaccine clinical trials, all within 24 hours, Shakhnovich says. The institution ended up hiring a senior executive at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative as a consultant.

The broader business opportunity for iAMscientist lies in helping biotech institutes, pharmaceutical companies, and other firms “make difficult decisions about where to invest their research money and how to productize” across biology, medicine, energy, and other fields, says Shakhnovich.

His startup, which has 15 people, closed its most recent angel investment round last month. Shakhnovich says he’s looking to build out his sales and marketing team with some new hires. For now, the company isn’t aiming to raise more money. Shakhnovich hinted that a strategic partnership with a large company is on the horizon—and that this deal, which will come with an investment, will increase iAMscientist’s membership by a factor of 10. (That plus a dedicated referral system helps answer the perennial question of how this network plans to recruit new members.)

The Boston area makes a lot of sense as the home of this startup. Our region has arguably the world’s greatest concentration of intellectual horsepower in science, technology, and medicine, coupled with a distinguished history in computing and networking. (I’m told Facebook started here, or something.) What other city could give birth to an Internet startup whose goal is, as iAMscientist’s blog proclaims, “engaging the world’s smartest to solve the world’s most difficult challenges”?

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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