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Connecting Indian researchers with global knowledge

Knimbus has managed to sign up 1,300 users within a short span but it needs to quickly grow its paid user base

Nivedita Mookerji  |  New Delhi 

Rahul Agarwalla
Rahul Agarwalla

Mayur Vaidya from IIT-Madras is pursuing a PhD in material sciences. Till some time ago, he wasn't sure of the content sources relevant to his topic and available through the institute library. His mentor told him about Knimbus and he's been using the online platform since then. As Knimbus is customised to his library subscriptions, he got just those articles in search that he could access. That saves his time and effort in finding content and he also got to know of other publisher platforms.

Knimbus, a Gurgaon-based online start-up, powers researchers to search and collaborate from global resources. While platforms such as Outsell and Simba also do research themselves and offer advisory services, Knimbus restricts itself to search and collaboration.

So, researchers working in the scientific, medical and technical (STM) segment in India or elsewhere or those wanting to co-author technical papers can now look beyond global platforms such as Outsell and Simba Research.

"We wanted to democratise knowledge and spur innovation not just in India but globally as well," says Knimbus' chief executive Rahul Agarwalla, who co-founded the networking site with friend Tarun Arora after they realised that researchers in India had limited access to the global knowledge pool.

Launched in September 2011, this online community was recently in the for raising a round angel funding of a little over $500,000 from a group of six investors.

The early days
In 2010, Agarwalla, who's neither a techie or from a research background but has an MBA, had just returned from Japan, gung-ho on research and development (R&D). He was working at a Japanese company that created software products and, therefore, had an insight into R&D. A chance conversation with Arora, the CEO of Global Information Systems Technology (GIST), a reseller of information, and a computer science grad with Silicon Valley experience, was all it took to start the journey. The talk was around that India has 20 per cent of the world population but makes for barely two per cent of research. Agarwalla was 36 years and Arora 40 when Knimbus was born. With Agarwalla and Arora, GIST, too, invested in the project. That a researcher needs to collaborate with peers was the basic idea. That a fifth of the world's scientific papers are co-authored internationally, while India is nowhere in the scene, firmed up the venture.

The model was to connect professionals to online content and peer groups to enable discovery, creation and sharing of knowledge in the STM segment.

How it works
Knimbus searches across published scientific content from hundreds of publishers and provides users with a single gateway to millions of journal articles, patents, e-books and course material. It also serves as the largest gateway to open access content from selected publishers and institutional repositories. Users can upload their working documents, datasheets and presentations and make these public to contribute to Knimbus.

At least two users, speaking on condition of anonymity, have said the Knimbus platform's single search window saves time and effort. The key differentiator of the platform is that Knimbus brings together search and social features, enabling knowledge sharing and research collaboration. What users like about Knimbus is it helps them manage most of their information needs, from discovery to organising their content in one place and finally sharing it.

The opportunity

Internationally, STM is a $30-billion industry, while in India the market is valued at $1 billion. Outsell and Simba Research are among the leading US organisations in this area. The business model, an analyst says, is scaleable, as STM has been able to withstand the challenges of the publishing world. The model is believed to be "extremely profitable", with as much as 35 per cent margin.

STM can be divided neatly into two halves: Publishers with online presence making up for an estimated $20 billion of business and value-added online service (a category that Knimbus is part of) at $10 billion, according to experts. While this segment is growing at an average four-five per cent, this value-added segment is showing significant promise at 20 per cent annual growth. "Revenue is shifting, from the traditional STM publishing to online value-added segment," agrees Agarwalla.

Business revolves around a business-to-business (B2B) model with two flavours - free access and advanced, subscription-based institutional version. Apart from 1,000-plus institutes in India, the company has struck partnerships in the US, Germany and Malaysia, among others. These international partners are information resellers such as GIST and get a commission from subscription. While the free access model is no money churner, it builds on the future, when more members convert to the paid format. It is expected as the market matures, the percentage of people shifting to the premium-paid model will grow.

The funding
Two of the angel round investors have told Business Standard it was their private investment.

Sarabjit Singh, partner with a global consultancy and who has worked across financial services, retail, utilities and manufacturing for 20 years, is among the angel investors. "My team and I do a lot of research and this platform is a great solution," says Singh.

Working with global media clients in certain segments, one understands the value of such a tool/network and its potential to grow in segments, including risk management in the corporate world, according to Singh. "Beyond a certain threshold, most of the subscriptions become profitable in this model."

Another investor, Ashwani Singla, CEO of Penn Schoen Berland, a global research-based communication advisory in South Asia, refers to Knimbus as an idea whose time has come. Pointing at the "poverty in research in India", he asks, "How will innovation happen?" That's what prompted Singla to make an independent investment in Knimbus, as it allows researchers to collaborate.

With its global ambition, Knimbus would surely again require money quite soon. "In another six months or so, the company would go for funding once more," says Agarwalla. This time, it will be a different set of investors, he adds. An estimated $3-4 million will be raised next.

Revenue model
Largely a free cloud-based platform, it aims to go paid gradually as it expands globally. It already offers premium paid accounts for a small number of clients. By its own admission, Knimbus wants to be both LinkedIn and Google for researchers. The key difference is in the security and quality of network, according to the founders.

At this point, of the 1,300-odd users, most are accessing for free on the Knimbus platform. Around 40 are paid users, such as the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, DRDO Lab and nuclear research institutes, to name a few. The cost could be anything from $2,000 to $8,500 an institute a year, depending on the size of an institute. Apart from IITs, National Institutes of Technology (NITs) and government R&D set-ups, users include central and state universities as well.

Singh, who has invested in other in private capacity, including a bottom-of-pyramid focused start-up called Swabhimaan, agrees Knimbus' focus is to hit the international market and gain more customers abroad. "This is to make the model more sustainable and present it as an alternative to some of the existing models in research publishing."

With a projection of $140,000 revenue for 2013, the company hopes to turn profitable in 2015. In the first quarter of this calendar year, it clocked a revenue of $30,000. While sellout is clearly an option, Knimbus is looking at long-term growth and international expansion.

Apart from scholarly research sharing, the platform is also being used as an innovative teaching tool. For instance, a professor recently shared his reading list with his class by inviting the students on to it and tagging articles.

The challenge, as an analyst points out, is it is both open and secret. The secrecy element is especially true for research relating to DRDO or nuclear energy. It is a team of a litlle over 30, all in their 20s, now at Knimbus, and the numbers are growing. While the current team is either in the technology side or marketing, it depends on outsourced resources for finance and human resources.

The promoters do not take any salary currently. "We are using every penny to grow our business," says Agarwalla.

EXPERT TAKE: Prof Rajat Moona Knimbus has an interesting concept, which connects researchers and provides mechanisms for collaborations among researchers. It aims to provide a research community framework much on the lines of the social networking except that it is for a specific purpose.

India's research community had faced a major challenge of availability of information for research work from other groups. Such searches are highly specialised, unlike those provided by general purpose search engines.

Bulk of scientific, technical, medical, social and industrial research is carried out in partnership mode as is evident by the number of research papers and patents published with joint authorship. Clearly, there is a demand for such a networking from the research community. Lack of access to the right kind of information, not knowing the sources of knowledge and data for their work, and lack of a platform to network with researchers across the globe are some of the issues faced by researchers while carrying out their research.

It is often said research today is driven by information and computing. The availability of information empowers researchers to carry out quality research. Knimbus aims to fill in this gap and, therefore, likely to have success in connecting researchers together.

Prof Rajat Moona, Director-general, C-DAC

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First Published: Mon, October 07 2013. 00:48 IST