Matchmaking tools: Augmenting the relationship between research and industry

5 minute read

This post originally appeared on SAGE Ocean

On a Friday evening in 1922, you could turn on the radio in Schenectady NY and hear Hermann Briggs talking about the latest research and discoveries around common disease and illnesses. Radio, and later TV, were the most exciting and widest reaching media platforms where research knowledge could be shared with the public.

Today, researchers have access to a whole host of media (podcasts, YouTube channels, Ted Talks, etc.) to talk about their research and how it can be fun or useful for the public. RealScientists, for example, is a Twitter account that researchers and science journalists can take over to talk about their lives and research outputs with the public. If you have a specific question, though, you can email it to AskWonder and an expert researcher will compile a list of fundamental resources for you to start with. Or if you are after something more deep and engaging, go to ThinkLab—a social platform built on an algorithm that distributes a monetary reward for comments and discussions authored by researchers that engage in difficult topics.

Briggs was an associate professor of medicine, sought after and appointed by the US Health Department to apply his research and knowledge to improving health conditions. This was not the earliest example of research being applied to policy. For centuries, the research outputs most relevant to policy makers have been used and shared on a consistent and ongoing basis. Expert groups like the UK’s ‘nudge unit’ that apply the latest research outputs from behavioral economics and psychology to public policy end up growing to £14M-profit-making machines, exporting at least 40% of this expertise internationally.

The industry-academic exchange seems to be a more recent development. It began in the 1950s, when the tobacco industry demanded and funded research that undermined the emerging evidence of tobacco’s detrimental impact on health. Then the sugar industry funded research that ‘singled out fat and cholesterol as the dietary causes of [Coronary Heart Disease] and downplayed evidence that sucrose consumption was also a risk factor.

There is no longer shortage of collaboration and knowledge exchange between academia and industry, although this is now less focused around controversial or ethical topics. But with estimates of three million academic articles published per year and almost eight million researchers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find the right paper or the right expert for the problem at hand.

Entrepreneurs and non-profits have been obsessing over this challenge and are coming up with a variety of solutions. While it takes time and money to find the perfect collaborator, there are a handful of tools that you can use immediately to find expert resources—be it individuals, teams, projects or papers.

  • PubNiche is a very simple website that aggregates any content from around the web that references scholarly outputs.

  • The Conversation is probably one of the most popular mediums, where researchers author pieces on a host of topics, linking back to fundamental research done in that area.

  • Sparrho is an exciting solution in this space which harnesses natural language processing and experts around the world to uncover cutting-edge science. Their community-curated ‘pinboards’ provide much needed context around emerging research areas whilst promoting the work of these rising scientists.

In the UK, is a tool developed by the National Centre for Universities and Businesses that aggregates information from university sites, researcher databases (ORCID), equipment databases, funded project databases and others to help businesses find the right academic partners. It uses elasticsearch to improve the search results and lets you visualize them on a map so you can pick the closest research group to work with. But it’s only as good as the underlying datasets—for example we know that ORCID is not yet as complete as we would like it to be.

Similar tools, with slightly different infrastructures, but solving the same problem of matching industrial partners with academics are:

  • AcademicLabs pulls in PubMed and other publications linking them back to the group or institution that builds their profile and capabilities on the platform.

  • SciLine focuses on matching academics with journalists, and additionally provides training for researchers that need to communicate their outputs to wider audiences.

  • IN-PART also uses algorithms to match the academics with the most relevant teams and individuals in a variety of companies that are using their platform, providing individual and human-curated alerts to ensure the matching is meaningful.

“Yet there’s a huge question”, says Adam Levine, associate professor at Cornell University, “once you know who is the right connection, how do you successfully communicate with them?”. Adam founded Research4Impact and through a variety of interviews and interactions with both academics and practitioners, he found that the most successful connections, be it between academics, or academics and industry, are not just about “sharing information, you’re building a relationship.” He found time and again that what people really want is “coaching on how to successfully interact with diverse others.”

While all these technologies help find the right expert faster and without needing to have an established network of connections and relationships, the classic face-to-face serendipitous meetings at events are still a growing trend. O’Reilly’s Sci Foo (with Digital Science, Nature Publishing Group and Google), Social Science Foo Camp (with SAGE Publishing and Facebook), Y Combinator’s new YC120, and the latest network The Grid (launched by New York City Economic Development Corporation and CIV:LAB) are invitation-only gatherings that intend to spur interdisciplinary, inter-academic and cross-industry collaboration, enabling face-to-face meetings in more or less structured environments. But even there, you have to make the effort to build the relationship and find the people that want to be ‘engaged’. Adam Levine talks about this concept in his new book (upcoming launch). He describes it in terms of “valuing what others have to say and being responsive to others’ concerns.”

In five years’ time, when you want to work with an academic on the next sensor for wellbeing, you will probably navigate to her most relevant paper and not only see an augmented pop-up showing you an easy-to-read summary, her entire digital presence, networks, experience, projects and connections; but you will also have a future Siri suggest the most appropriate and effective way for you to start a conversation and build the relationship.