«I want to bring sexy back to science», says Alberto Pepe, the 34 year old co-founder of Authorea, a startup based in New York City. It’s «the collaborative platform for research», reads its website.
It’s also the first startup created by an Italian that is able to raise money among NYC investors, thanks to the VentureOutNY program that every month brings non US startups to NYC to learn from the local technology community and meet investors. The first Italian program took place last December, and two weeks ago there was a second one, sponsored – among others – by the Italian Business & Investment Initiative (IB&II)with eight new startups showcasing their business to an investor panel that included Brian Cohen of NY Angels, Thatcher Bell of Gotham Ventures, Nihal Mehta of ENIAC Ventures, and Kristin Calve of Topstone Angels. For the first time, the General Consul of Italy in NYC, Natalia Quintavalle was the keynote speaker, stressing how the Italian authorities are supporting young entrepreneurs.
«We are raising a $600,000 seed round with a term sheet from New York Angels, with Brian Cohen and Alessandro Piol leading the pool of investors – says Pepe. – I met them at the VentureOutNY event on December 3, 2013. Cohen has a Master of Science and Technology Journalism and was interested in my scientific background; together with Piol he helped me elaborate a business plan, which was a difficult task for me».
Born in Manduria, where everybody, including his family, makes wine (the Primitivo), Pepe has always been fascinated by math, astronomy, astrophysics. Here is his story, as he told me: «After high-school, in 1998 I decided to go and study in London. I knew nothing about the Internet, or about how to apply to a British college. So when I went to UCL (University College London) in September, thinking I could immediately enroll and start my classes, I looked very naïf, but they liked my spirit, and they accepted me, provided that I would spend one year studying English. At UCL, I got my Bachelor degree in Astrophysics (2002) and my Master in Computer Science (2003)».
«Then I went back to Italy where I worked for six months at CINECA (InterUniversity Consortium, Bologna) with the Scientific Computing and Data Visualization Group. From 2004 to 2006 I worked in Geneva, Switzerland, in the Information Technology Department at CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research). At CERN, I dealt a lot with archives and I started cultivating the idea of an open access to science».
«In 2006 I moved to California, where I got my Ph.D. in Information Studies at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). My Doctoral dissertation was about “Structure and Evolution of Scientific Collaboration Networks in a Modern Research Collaboratory”: it’s the scientific foundation for my startup»
«In June 2010, after finishing my PhD, I met professor Alyssa Goodman, professor at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, in Cambridge, Massachusetts: after a ten minute conversation she hired me. So I did my Postdoctoral research at Harvard, where I stayed until four months ago, when I resigned in order to focus on my startup (Professor Goodman is on Authorea’s board as Senior Scientific Advisor). I founded Authorea in 2012 with Nathan Jenkins, whom I met in Geneva.”
Why did Pepe leave research at the university? «It was fun – he explains, – but sometimes the academic world changes very slowly. I’ve been doing research for the last 14 years, and I’ve published a couple dozen scientific papers, besides my Doctoral dissertation, which was awarded the prize as the best one in the fields of Info science and technology. So I know very well how the scientific publication business works and what’s wrong: we do 21st century research, but we write and disseminate the results with 20th century tools, which were created before Internet was invented. Even worse, we package the results in a 17th century format, the same that Galileo invented to communicate with his scientific community and with the church authorities. However, Galileo in his scientific articles included all data from his observations. That’s impossible today, with huge data, so we publish only a very superficial version of our data, giving a link to a server where the whole data are available. But that’s very static».
That’s why Pepe created Authorea, «a platform that let scientists create an article as a dynamic project, where all the results are transparent and include not only text but also images, data, and analysis», he stresses. Harvard is already a client of Authorea’s, as well as Darmouth, CERN and EPRFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne): their researchers are using its platform. «We are also looking for contracts with university libraries, which are the gatekeepers of scientific information – adds Pepe, -they are spending million dollars in subscriptions to scientific publications, where their own research is published».
Pepe’s dream? «To change the world of scientific publication». How? «Asking ourselves: if Galileo were alive today, how would he publish his articles? I’m sure he’d used new tools -says the young Italian scientist. – Publishers of scientific magazines are quite slow and the review system is quite antiquated. My idea is to publish immediately all scientific articles online, where everybody can review and discuss them».
At the moment Pepe and his colleagues at Authorea are focused onto making their platform easier to use and involving scientists from fields other than physics, such as biology. Next step is to build a sales and marketing team. The scientific publication business is huge – a $25 billion revenue for medicine, science and technology magazine – so the potential is very high.
Why is Authorea based in NYC and non in Boston close to Harvard? «In 2013 I came to New York as Visiting Researcher in Astrophysics and Cosmology at NYU (New York University), and I fell in love with the city – explains Pepe. – Here it’s also easier for me to stay in touch with my girlfriend who is an actress working between NYC and Los Angeles. For the time being Authorea is based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where I live, but we may try and find a new, larger space».
(Originally posted in StartupItalia! )