Dr. Vivian Chan, co-founder of Sparrho, talks scientific discovery engines, machine learning, building a global user base and entrepreneurship.

As a trained scientist with a PhD in biochemistry, I’d been accustomed to having a direct line to the latest cutting-edge science throughout my academic career. It was only after graduating from Cambridge University that I began to notice the huge difference in accessibility to many things I had taken for granted previously: the wealth of scientific knowledge that I had been so used to accessing during my studies was no longer available to me.

I took that problem and combined it with inspiration from a postdoctoral researcher ‘Steve’ in my lab, who’d suggest personalised reading lists to our lab group every week, to come up with the idea that my company and I have been developing for the past four years: Sparrho.com, a scientific discovery engine helping everyone to find and understand the science that’s important to them.

What’s the problem, and what’s Sparrho doing to solve it?
Science is the fundamental bedrock of society: it explains not only how the world works, but how we work too. Yet this world that we live in holds millions of people whose access to this knowledge is limited or denied.

Enter Sparrho – a new way for experts as well as newcomers to explore the literature and hear directly from researchers. Tapping into humans’ unique and powerful ability to make unexpected connections between studies in different fields, Sparrho encourages its expert users to put together public collections of articles (pinboards) in their field of speciality, with a summary explaining the topic and its scientific significance.

Why have we chosen this model? Because – as with many industries – scientific publishing is being disrupted by new technologies, whether they be digitisation, blockchain, or AI. And this change is happening swiftly; the face of publishing looks radically different from how it did even a few years ago. Longstanding problems with the way science is packaged and consumed are being exposed, and one of the most significant problems is science’s understandability.

Push vs pull: what’s the best way to spread science?
Creating the ability to discover the latest scientific papers is just the beginning of Sparrho’s journey: our goal is to facilitate universal understanding of what’s happening in science. This is the difference between the ‘push’ and the ‘pull’ models of knowledge discovery.
The currently widespread ‘pull’ model requires someone to know exactly what they’re looking for when they search for research, whilst we want to usher in an era of digital ‘push’: allowing people to discover research that’s relevant to them even if they don’t know which specific keywords to search or aren’t well versed in the jargon of that topic. The aim is to constantly be bringing the right content to the right audience at the right time. This is what Sparrho’s model is designed to do; by easing users into topics through expertly curated pinboards, we aim to transform the understandability of science.

Since good science is globally collaborative, it’s vital to develop a global user base to enable and encourage dissemination of science worldwide. Our fastest growing user hub regions in 2017 – Western and Eastern Africa, and Southern Asia – were all outside of traditional R&D hubs. And for our last Researcher Prize round, where we award a conference travel grant to the creator of the best pinboard on our site, over 3000 pinboards were created by users from over 70 countries in just three months. For a scientific database to be truly democratic, it must index and involve scientific contribution from all over the world – after all, true scientific progress is inherently unbounded by geographical borders.

My advice to any aspiring or current founder? Stay introspective.
As Sparrho moves into a new phase of its life, with workplace and team expansions, I need to ensure that my personal growth keeps pace. Particularly important is the ability to cultivate a good work-life balance to avoid burnout, whilst keeping performance at optimum capacity.

A successful company is one that’s constantly growing and adapting, but if its leader thinks ‘growing’ simply means ‘adding more people’ without reassessing team structure and culture to ensure each member thrives, that’s where problems begin to set in: it’s important that your team grows collectively, for the right reasons. And for a team to grow successfully, its CEO needs to grow alongside it.

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