Changing the face of science

15 Mar 2012 | News

ACES winner Mendeley is revolutionising the way research is done – using cloud computing to create the largest crowd-sourced library in the world. Its software lets academics organise and annotate journal articles, and share and discuss their work with researchers around the globe

The CEO of Mendeley Victor Henning and his two co-founders started down the path to entrepreneurship by solving a problem they had as PhD students – organising mountains of research. “Every academic has hundreds of PDF files that they need to manage for their research,” says Henning. Mendeley’s goal is to make that task, “really easy.”

The five-year old company provides intelligent database and collaboration tools for academics. Its desktop software allows researchers to drag and drop papers into cloud-based folders, and automatically extracts information from those PDFs to help researchers organise their work.  Proprietary algorithms analyse the text to determine who wrote the paper, and when and where it appeared, the lifeblood of academic research. “Mendeley takes those PDFs and turns them into a structured database that is easy to search and sort and filter,” Henning says.

Since its launch in 2007, more than 1.6 million people have signed up for Mendeley’s free cloud- and crowd-based service, with 150,000 new users joining each month. Academics make more than 5 million visits a month to the Mendeley website, cataloguing, maintaining and sharing their research papers. 

Focus on quality

While the numbers may look modest alongside the billions of friends on Facebook and other social networks, Mendeley claims it is the world’s largest research collaboration platform and research database.  Besides, the start-up’s focus is quality, not quantity. When Henning pitched Mendeley at the European Entrepreneurship Summit in Brussels in February, he listed MIT and the universities of Cambridge and Stanford as its top users.

At the start, the founders of Mendeley viewed the project as a way of earning money to supplement their academic salaries. While Henning was working on a doctorate in psychology at Bauhaus University of Weimar, Jan Reichelt, now president of Mendeley, was researching information management at the University of Cologne, and Paul Föckler, the chief technical officer, was doing PhD in computer science and media system science, also at Bauhaus University.

Although Henning and Föckler were both studying in Weimar, they were in different departments and had not met formally. The two, who knew each other by sight, formally met in Las Vegas where they were attending academic conferences and it was here they struck up a friendship, three years before Mendeley was formed.

Academic Enterprise Awards (ACES)

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An incredible database

“When we came up with the idea, we planned to do it as a side project,” Henning says. The trio would write software and then licence it out. They soon realised the huge, “potential in the idea of crowd sourcing”, says Henning. If they got millions of scientists to use Mendeley, he explains, “It would be an incredible database of research that would not have been available before”.

The Science|Business Innovation Board awarded Mendeley the Microsoft prize for the best company with a business model based on cloud computing, one of four Academic Enterprise Awards (ACES), presented at Start-Up – The European Entrepreneurship Summit held in Brussels on 21 February. On the day before the ACES presentation, researchers had uploaded 800,000 papers to Mendeley’s database.

Using the Mendeley software, researchers can annotate their libraries of paper, as well as creating collaborative groups to share and discuss their work. “Each document comes with unique user-generated social information,” says Henning. Mendeley knows who people are, what they are reading, and what keywords they use. But, Henning insists, the company is more than just a social network. “Scientists are not known for being sociable,” he jokes. “I have always seen social networks as being a subset of our functionality.”

Platform for scientific apps

Mendeley – which combines the names of two scientists, Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, and Dmitri Mendeleyev, who developed the periodic table of elements - is turning its database into a platform for developing scientific applications. More than 1,000 people have already signed up to create apps for such programs as, ‘The visualisation of research, impact analysis and collaboration’.

Though the founders started Mendeley with their own funds, the company quickly attracted venture capital. In a handshake deal, Stefan Glaenzer, a serial entrepreneur and millionaire, invested €250,000 and became an adviser to the company as well as its executive chairman. Since then, Mendeley has attracted angel funding – now “in the high seven figures”, says Henning – and has received research grants in excess of €3 million.

While Mendeley was founded in Germany, the founders moved the business to London’s Tech City in 2008, both to be nearer Europe’s largest venture capital market, including their own backers, and to be in the centre of one of the world’s most active scientific research and publishing communities in the so-called “Golden Triangle” of Oxford, London and Cambridge.

Revenue growth

Henning sees multiple sources of revenue growth for Mendeley. The company has started to collect a share of the income generated by applications writers. Companies and universities have also taken out licences, allowing them to use the software to manage research portfolios across their organisations and to improve collaboration among researchers. By providing such connections, Henning believes that Mendeley could become a portal for Open Access journal publication.

In presentations, Henning proudly quotes Werner Vogels, the chief technology officer of who commented, “I strongly believe that Mendeley can change the face of science”.  Given how it has tapped cloud computing to transform the ability of academics to organise their research, Mendeley already has.

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