AcademicTech success: what does it look like?

AcademicTech is bursting with innovation and innovators. Yvonne Campfens, Internet Librarian International 2019 keynote, explores the drivers for success in this fast-moving sector.

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In 2018 I conducted market research into the new players offering research workflows and communication services. Many new names have entered this market over recent years (e.g. Altmetric (2011), Kudos (2013), Mendeley (2008), Publons (2013)). All of them are driven by a desire to improve aspects of the research cycle. I wanted to explore what had happened to these new players. My first research can be found here.

Later, as I began to share my findings, people started to ask me “which AcademicTech startups are the most successful?”. That seemed like a great topic for another summer market research project!

What does success look like?

So, in 2019 I spoke with 20+ startups from the list of 100+ independent startups that I am currently tracking. My first open question was “What does success for your startup look like to you?” This question alone provided a wealth of answers and insights. The bottom line of all feedback is: success is a relative notion. One of the AcademicTech startups beautifully summarised the breadth and diversity of business success: "Success is a combination of client retention, valuable new clients, strong reviews, great relationships with clients, product/market fit validation, and building a great team and culture. Success is working hard to scale in order to meet demand versus the early stages of creating demand."

I also got answers that indicate a completely different dimension of success. One of the startup founders links his success directly to achieving quantified research results and discoveries that benefit society and humanity: "Humans can live significantly longer than the status quo, at least x times longer; and we achieve that within y years."

Five drivers of success

I also asked the startups what drivers determine their success and how these can be measured. First and foremost, their feedback wonderfully illustrated how things change over time when organisations mature through the four startup stages described in Corporate Venturing [Mohout and Van Peteghem]:

  • Idea stage
  • Problem/solution fit
  • Product/market fit
  • Scaling

One respondent wrote: "For me, the first three stages are a cycle rather than a process: you are constantly iterating your hypotheses, reworking them to fit your new and developing understanding of the market." Another said: "It is rare to go from stage one to two without some kind of massive adjustment." Furthermore: "Product/market fit is the stage at which the service is introduced and where metrics start being measured. The scaling stage is then about how to build out the company in all the ways needed to capitalise on the market opportunity validated in the three previous stages." Various people said that being able to move to a next stage is success in itself. Timing is everything!

1 Value creation

The first category of drivers of success has to do with the value that is being created by the startup (the idea, the problem/solution fit, and the actual product). Does the startup fulfil a need somewhere, for someone, and does this person appreciate it? In other words, how well is the startup delivering (better) solutions that meet new requirements, unarticulated needs, or existing needs? For example, does it help individual scientists save time, concentrate on advancing their research, and shorten the time from research to results (e.g. from funding to data)? Or does the startup help academic publishers improve their service or performance? Value can also be created by contributing to new industry initiatives, like Plan S and the Joint Roadmap for Open Science Tools.

2 Access to the market

The second category concerns the ability of the startup to effectively access the market. This has to do with product/market fit and the ability to reach customers and users and achieve effective distribution and system integration or interoperability. It also has to do with having access to communication channels and platforms and making it to the agenda of conferences, such as research-discipline specific and learned societies, library communities (e.g. IFLA, LIBER), publisher communities (e.g. ALPSP, OASPA, SSP, STM), and others. In short, how effectively does the startup “go to market,” and distribute and deliver the value it creates?

3 Access to resources

Success drivers in the third category have to do with the extent to which the startup has access to resources such as working capital, technology, and people. Also, how well is this being managed? For instance, how successful is the startup in securing funding and getting the money to flow? Or, to what extent is the startup able to build a great team with a stimulating work culture?

4 Capturing value

The fourth category contains drivers that have to do with the startup’s ability to capture the value it creates, which is often referred to as the revenue model. But this is about more than money! Think of capturing value as providing an experience, building a community, or getting access to data. It has to do with the extent to which the startup has a sustainable and accepted economic model to operate with.

5 Growth and scale

The fifth category of drivers of success has to do with the ability of the startup to grow and scale. How well is the startup (now scale-up!) able to accelerate growth while increasing organisational maturity (i.e. attract resources and people) and capitalising on the market opportunity?

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