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Sparrho lands as next ‘Google for science’

STEM research search engines STEM research search engines

Meet one of the UK's fastest growing sci-tech startups and the leader behind its growth and ambition.

“I am a scientist turned accidental entrepreneur.”

Meet Dr Vivian Chan, CEO of new online search engine Sparrho, whose aim is to simplify the search for the latest STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) topics. Sparrho, one of the newest STEM research seach engines in existence.

Like most entrepreneurs, Chan spotted a problem and found a solution.

Whilst studying for her PhD in Biochemistry at Cambridge University, UK, Chan found it increasingly difficult using various STEM research search engines to stay on top of her field’s latest articles and discussions. She also noticed that this was a trend across most areas of research.

In her department however, they had a very useful post-doc called Steve. He would spend around 15 minutes every morning reading heads of journal articles and if he found something that proved useful for someone’s research, he would send it over.

At that time Chan was discussing her research problems with future Sparrho co-founder Nilu Satharasinghe and both eventually came to see Steve as a human solution to this issue.

“We thought that every scientist needed a Steve in their labs. Once we realized that, we focused on how we could digitize Steve.”

Digital Steve became Sparrho which sees itself as a new breed of STEM research search engines that is now competing with its rivals Google Scholar and PubMed.

Broader, smarter and definitely not just for scientists, Sparrho does seem to have a winning edge though.

Concept and Content

Broader: “We realise that science goes beyond research articles.” Sparrho recognises the value of additional information of patents, future grants and videos and includes them in your search results. Sparrho also understands that tech savvy adults and generation Y devour different mediums of content and having the ability to choose how you get clued up is very important for retaining users.

Smarter: As well as its scope, Sparrho is intelligent. “We decided we could get efficient technology to look at tens of millions of journal articles out there, aggregate them and then present it in a really easy to browse newsfeed manner.”

Chan and Satharasinghe designed Sparrho so that the more you input search queries, the more Sparrho learns about you and your interests and finds more relevant articles for you – all via machine learning algorithms.

Wider audience: A common misconception about the little known space of science start-ups is that it is for a niche audience. “Science data is out there but scattered. Sparrho can sort that.” If Sparrho can sort and present new information the way other STEM research search engines can’t, people outside of science may utilise this service.

Indeed Sparrho is recording journalists, tech consultants (looking at interesting projects), tech investors (looking at where to commercialise next), librarians and most interestingly, parents, as current users.

The latter is seen as part of a resurgence of interest in science Chan thinks: “They want to make informed decisions – it’s a rebuttal of recent reactive measures against healthcare advice, for example measles in USA.”

That triple threat of meatier content, intelligent software and customer reach seems to be having an effect.

User reaction

Sparrho users check 18,000 different sources daily. There was around three million pieces of content within the site, however, since partnering with the British Library that number looks to be closer to 14 million pieces of metadata information.

And it’s only taken 18 months for the search engine to record those sorts of figures.

Funding arrived at the very early stages of the startup’s conception and investors included her fellow scientists. Getting the thumbs up (and the funding to match) from her colleagues was important for both Chan and Satharasinghe who then decided to delay advertising and marketing for a year to focus on matching the product to their investor’s vision.

“Right now we’re looking at our users and listening to their feedback. A couple of professors have said ‘We actually use it as our homepage’ which is great to hear. We didn’t even market it that way!”

And a number of those professors are evidently happy with the progress.

“A lot of [funding] has come from existing investors who ‘top up’ because they’re so interested in the project; they see Sparrho as solving their problems so of course they want to get on board.”

The London and Cambridge based startup hopes to increase investor interest again soon to add to the current £500,000 they have raised so far.

Looking past the finer points of Sparrho though, Chan recognises that her company and herself have roles to play in wider issues.

Equality issues

As a female CEO in a STEM environment, Chan can see that more needs to be done to encourage diversity within this sector.

“The most important factor is having relatable role models that people can see day in, day out.”

That meant that when she was asked to join SVC2UK (Silicon Valley Comes To The UK) in 2014 with 17 other female CEO from some of the fastest growing tech companies in the UK, Chan jumped.

Names include Jess Butcher of Blippar, Caroline Daniel of Financial Times Weekend and Dr Claire Hooper of Cambridge Temperature Concepts.

The initiative wanted to introduce leading tech woman to bridge the gap between the UK and Silicon Valley, build networks, scale their businesses but also raise their exposure – which is something Chan thinks is needed more.

“Whilst studying my undergraduate degree, women in STEM wasn’t an issue for me. But after leaving science and academia to be a CEO, the numbers drop.”

She deflects the idea of giving any advice for future leaders herself, but instead reiterates a point serial entrepreneur Sherry Coutu once told her: “If you don’t know how to do it, do it.”

Forward looking

Chan knows that one day Sparrho will have to think about an income.

Larger institutional investors are becoming interested in STEM research search engines and Chan wants to monetise the software behind Sparrho rather than the start-up itself.

The format of taking huge amounts of information and turning it into sortable, searchable and easy-to-read content is powerful and something current STEM research search engines don’t do efficiently. Chan wants to capitilise on this and outsource their format to businesses that produce a lot of their own research. Think of players inside industries like oil, gas and pharmaceuticals – who have already voiced an interest.

And of Sparrho’s position right now, at the forefront of science and tech collaboration, Chan is aware of their unique position.

“Marrying up the science and tech worlds is something I find very simple. There are so few of us too, so it’s easy to be an innovator in this space.”

It’s true that there is a new generation of scientists who are up to date with technology, data and with more links to communication and creation. Chan believes Sparrho will top the list of STEM research search engines and be their users go-to knowledge pool.

Was she always this confident?

“I always knew [Sparrho] would be very very big, but at the time I didn’t know what that meant.”

That’s a yes then.

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