ResearchGate raises $52.6M for its social research network for scientists

As LinkedIn continues to reign as the world’s largest social network for the wider working world, we are seeing the rise of alternatives that are besting and beating it in specific verticals. ResearchGate, a Berlin-based startup that provides a professional network for the scientific community to connect with each other to share and discuss research, is today announcing that it raised $52.6 in a Series D round of funding, bringing the total raised to over $100 million.

This latest tranche of money comes from an impressive list of strategic and financial investors that include the Wellcome Trust, Goldman Sachs Investment Partners, and Four Rivers Group, Ashton Kutcher, LVMH, Xavier Niel, Bill Gates, Benchmark, and Founders Fund, some of whom (like Gates, Benchmark and Founders Fund) were investors in previous rounds.

The startup has already been using the funds to build new features, such as Projects, to expand the functionality of its platform.

“Been using” is the operative phrase here: Ijad Madisch, ResearchGate’s co-founder and CEO, said in an interview that the funding was actually closed in November 2015 (Projects, which lets scientists upload and update research in progress, was actually launched in March 2016). The company has kept quiet about it until now, but since it will be filing its accounts for 2015 soon (a requirement under German law for all companies), it is now providing more details.

ResearchGate is nowhere near the scale of LinkedIn when it comes to user numbers. There are currently 12 million registered members, compared to 467 million currently on LinkedIn. (Membership is free on ResearchGate: the company instead makes revenues from things like recruitment and other advertising, both of which are being directed at exactly the audience that those advertisers want to reach.)

But what it may lack in size it makes up for in engagement, extremely good targeting and a fresh approach to science publishing and sharing information. Scientists on the platform — they include academics, but also students and researchers and doctors both from profit and non-profit organizations covering a wide range of specific areas under the general area of ‘science’ — are uploading 2.5 million publications each month at the moment.

Madisch tells me the growth has been exponential: 2.5 million was the same number of publications that were uploaded in ResearchGate’s first four years. It’s as much a data repository in that regard as it is a place for people to network with each other professionally.

(In that regard, you could argue that, for scientists, ResearchGate is hugely more useful than something like LinkedIn, whose content up to now has largely been about finding jobs, or sharpening your thoughts/image, rather than a focus on data that is core to you getting your job done.)

Then there is the nature of the content itself. There are, of course, a number of places where the scientific community today shares, discusses and accesses research from their colleagues in their fields. They include a number of academic publications in print and online and Google Scholar. But Madisch said that one of the key things that helps ResearchGate stand apart from the rest is that up to now a lot of the focus in the world of science has been about publishing successful research, while ResearchGate also provides a platform for failures.

“All the founders are scientists and we know what the problems are with scientific publishing today. The biggest is sharing failed experiments, not the successes that are published in articles but the ones that are not. ResearchGate enables exactly this,” he said. Part of this is enabled by Projects, which lets users upload and track experiments as they are happening, meaning no one knows how they will turn out.

Why has no one published failures before? “It’s a hard question, but as a scientist you have to always decide what to publish and not publish, and positive outcomes have always been valued more than the negative ones,” he said. “But in my opinion, that is stupid. Negative results are as important as positive ones. This is one the challenges. We really want to change the way scientists think.”

While ResearchGate continues to work on shifting the paradigm for how the science community communicates with each other, it’s also starting to think about what other kinds of verticals it might want to reach in the future. Other targets could include verticals like education, or the legal world, or even the tech community. This is not exactly new territory: the rise of “vertical” social networks, targeting specific communities of people, has been happening for a while now and you can find strong communities already in existence for discussions and data covering things as diverse as fishing to coding.

Still, that also speaks of opportunity, which is where the interest from investors comes in.

“ResearchGate is an innovative and widely-used platform, which connects researchers with their peers around the world. Through providing a space to share results and ideas, it is helping researchers to advance their research and develop applications that benefit society,” said Geoffrey Love, senior member of the Investment Division at Wellcome Trust, in a statement.

“The way in which the scientific community innovates is rapidly evolving away from siloed experimentation and toward network-driven collaboration. With its member network of 12 million individuals, ResearchGate has clearly become the dominant player driving that transformation,” said Ian Friedman, Co-Head of Goldman Sachs Investment Partners Venture Capital & Growth Equity, in a statement. “Partnering with a team leading the change in something as important as the way in which research is conducted is a rare opportunity and we’re excited to support ResearchGate in fulfilling their mission of accelerating the pace of scientific advancement.”

“To be successful, everything a true network-effect business like ResearchGate does needs to be useful to its members,” said board member Matt Cohler, Benchmark General Partner, in a statement. “This includes making money. True to their mission, ResearchGate’s has tapped into a sustainable business model that serves to fuel the network’s growth as the place where science happens and progress is made.”