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#Founders Friday with Vivian Chan, Co-Founder of Sparrho

22nd April 2016
By Katy Alexander

I5 (1)We are very excited to be running a new recurring series on our blog, #FoundersFriday, in which we interview the founders of different scholarly communication businesses, asking them to share their advice for others and their perspective on the industry as a whole.

For this edition we have interviewed Vivian Chan (@vivianchan_s ), co-founder of Sparrho, the research discovery and recommendation platform.

What made you decide to leave academia and launch your own business idea?

I’ve always been compelled to solve problems – really big problems that would push me to keep learning, and make an impact on the wider society. I certainly enjoyed my PhD research very much, and I now have great analytical and problem solving toolbox to draw upon. However, once I was exposed to entrepreneurship through my presidency at CUTEC and as part of the inaugural Entrepreneur First cohort, I knew that starting my own business would be the most proactive way for me to tackle the bigger issues in how scientific knowledge is disseminated.

If you could go back in time and give your pre-startup self one piece of advice, what would it be and why?

I would do it all again, without a shred of doubt, but I would tell my pre-startup self to test all my assumptions with razor-sharp focus, starting first with the problem I’m tackling, then the solution I’m proposing. However difficult, collect data to inform your decisions. Get creative and hands-on: it doesn’t need to be a complicated tech-enabled experiment – sometimes you just need to leave your desk and speak to potential users.

Suppose I have an idea for a tool, or a solution for a problem, within the research landscape and I want to develop my idea into a business. What would your advice to me be?

Take the problem that you think you have a solution for, and before anything else, work out who really cares about solving this problem. For example, is this only a small bugbear for your own Chemistry research group, or do all Chemistry PhD students suffer from this problem, or does it run further than that? Be really tough on yourself at this stage, because you need have a practical understanding of how big the market opportunity for your solution is.

Now take that market opportunity, and explore how you could make minor tweaks to your solution to solve the problems of other populations to expand your target market size. This basic thought experiment will form the basis of your long-term business plan, and help you discern whether you have a solution worth developing into a business, or just a tool that helps a handful of people, who probably wouldn’t pay for it, and wouldn’t be devastated if it didn’t exist.

As the founder of a business, what are you most proud of?

I’m most proud of my diverse and talented team, which I’ve assembled through a mixture of telling lots and lots of people about my ambitious vision, and pure good fortune. We each have different academic and commercial backgrounds, and are not afraid to voice opposing opinions when we’re making difficult strategic decisions.

As a CEO, I’m grateful to my team that not only keeps me connected with our users’ and partners’ needs, and builds the most resilient tech possible to deal with the huge volume of data and requests on our platform to fulfil our users’ needs, but also pushes me and each other to keep learning, and aim ever higher.

In the scholarly communication & publishing space, it’s often said that people have the same conversations again and again. Can you think of an issue that, in your view, people aren’t talking about enough?

My team and I have participated in a number of scholarly publishing and research policy panels and meetings, from within the publishing industry all the way up to the EU level. Though it may be true that the same issues crop up again and again, it doesn’t mean that progress isn’t been made.

One key thing that I would say isn’t being done enough is making sure that stakeholders across sectors and disciplines are present at such conversations, and invited to speak on the same stage as equals. We need to break down the barriers and listen to researchers, startups, publishers, librarians, research funders, and the wider society that consumes and benefits from scientific content alike. There also needs to be more encouragement for new startups to push the boundaries in this space, and more collaboration between startups and industry stakeholders so that entrepreneurs can better understand the problems they are trying to solve, and what’s already been done. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel!

What does the future have in store for Sparrho?

Sparrho will soon have the world’s most comprehensive database of scientific content, and we’re always refining our algorithms to provide better recommendations for our users to help them find things they didn’t even know that they didn’t know about – this is why it’s crucial that our database covers all fields of science.

In the long run, we hope to distribute the scientific content in Sparrho to a wider audience. We’ve had a great response to our Research Perspectives initiative so far, which provides sponsorship to PhD students and postdocs to write short digests of the latest seminal research in their field, in order to promote interdisciplinary conversations and communicate these advances to non-specialists.

I’ve always believed that keeping up with new research isn’t just important for scientists, and users as diverse as journalists, early-stage investors, strategic consultants, patent attorneys, and patients’ families have used Sparrho. I believe Sparrho will help anybody and everybody stay on top of the science that matters to them.

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