Jan Reichelt is Co-Founder and Managing Director of Mendeley, a platform that helps people to organize and collaborate on research projects and aims to make academic research more accessible and transparent.
What started as a small start-up in 2008 has since developed into one of the largest social networks for scientists and researchers and was eventually acquired by the Amsterdam-based publishing house Elsevier in April 2013.
In 2015, Jan Reichelt acted as a member of the jury of Falling Walls Venture where more than 20 science-based start-ups presented their businesses in Berlin on 8 November.
Back in London, we had the chance to ask him a few questions about the links between the worlds of science and start-ups:
For the readers who do not know Mendeley, can you explain in two or three sentences how this online platform helps scientists to share their work?
Researchers can share their work in many different ways on Mendeley. For example, you can collaborate and share documents (such as your own published work, PDF articles, drafts, and references) in groups with your colleagues and other researchers from around the world. You can also create a public profile on Mendeley, which the platform will be able to pre-populate for you based on Mendeley’s integration with Scopus. On your profile, you can share your work and your publications, but you can also see statistics around your publications and your profile as a researcher, in order to make it easier for other researchers to get in contact based on relevant background information. This is even more important as the researchers experience a lot of publication pressure and are looking for ways to increase their productivity, as well as whilst the world of science becomes more and more international. You simply need digital tools and platforms such as Mendeley.
How did you come up with the basic idea behind Mendeley and how did you start your own business?
We came up with the idea for Mendeley having been researchers (in that case Ph.D. students) ourselves. We were frustrated with the lack of digital tools and platforms available at reasonable costs to us as end-users, and hence set out to create what we felt was missing. This was primarily a combination of productivity-focused tools (for collecting, reading, and writing research) as well as tools focused on social collaboration (e.g. the groups functionality on Mendeley, the possibility to share and discuss with the academic community). All this should be an “accessible” product, both in terms of pricing (Mendeley operates a freemium model) as well as technology (we support all computer platforms and also have mobile apps).
Who inspired you? Do you have a role model?
I was inspired by different influences. On the one hand, I was personally inspired by one of our earliest investors and business angels, Stefan Glänzer. He created several successful companies that were relevant on an international scale. Then I thought, ‘if there are so many cool social tools in other consumer industries, like Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, etc., why isn’t there something like that for us academics?’. And finally, the start-up world in general is very inspiring, with people constantly trying to break the boundaries and define the future of digital products and technologies. It is a very motivating and challenging environment.
How did you get the attention of Elsevier? Weren’t you afraid that you would loose control over your baby once it becomes a part of such a big institution?
We had always been in touch with probably most of the relevant market participants to evaluate their strategies, as well as their attitudes towards innovation. Over time our conversations with Elsevier turned from very copyright-focused and early-stage innovation discussions into something that got both parties excited and was really ambitious: we all agreed that we wanted to build a truly global research collaboration platform and a suite of tools that should make the lives of researchers easier. Once we had agreement over the long-term strategy it was of course part of the deal that once you give up ownership over “your baby” that you have to have confidence that the new owner would take it to the next level. Now, three years later, Mendeley has grown significantly in terms of team (from 50 to more than 150 people), users (now close to 5 million academics), and importance for the market (hundreds of institutional customers, agreements and discussions with many other publishers), so overall I’m very happy with the outcome!
What do you think is the biggest challenge for scientists when they would like to start their own company?
I’m not sure if there’s only one big challenge; starting a business in general is quite difficult anyway. For scientists in particular I think it is important to figure out and evaluate the true market need for the idea. Often scientists are very detail-oriented, and I would recommend to look at a possible problem/solution combination on a global level and try to see how much more than “just a niche problem” one could address. Then, subsequently (or better, maybe, in parallel), scientists should develop an understanding of the requirements to actually build and run a company – there’s a lot more needed than a technical solution to a problem, such as marketing, sales, finance, funding, etc. Either you teach yourself up and one in the team becomes the person with these responsibilities, or you add co-founders to your team that bring these complementary skills.
You are currently acting as a mentor and business angel for newly founded companies, what advice do you give to them?
Ah, that’s an interesting question. Well, there is no “general advice” – I try to really coach and mentor the founders of these start-ups personally and individually, sharing my experiences and learnings from what I have seen at Mendeley as well as what I now see at some of the other companies that I’m involved with. So the type of advice I give is based on the company and personal situation of the founder; interestingly, this encompasses both “technical skills”, e.g. helping with an investor presentation, as well as “personal support”, where I just have an open ear for the problems of the founders, how they feel and of course especially when they struggle. I think it’s important that you have someone you can trust to speak to also when things don’t go so well (…which you rarely do when you are starting a company…).
What are your future plans with Mendeley? What walls would you like to tear down in the future?
At Elsevier, we’ve just embarked on the journey of building the global research collaboration platform I’ve mentioned above. There’s still more work to do to leverage the full range of assets the teams bring to the table, and still more work to do to make researchers’ lives easier. We have a lot of potential for further product innovation, e.g. we’ve just recently launched Mendeley Data, as well as Elsevier Heliyon, a large-scale open access journal built on Mendeley technology. But we’re on a good way. I personally also continue to get excited about the opportunities we have with new and serial entrepreneurs, and how we can empower them to innovate for better products, and ultimate a better future. This is true generally for the field of digital start-ups, but even more so in the area of science and education, where I spend a lot of my time.