In the mid-2000s, Facebook, Bebo and Myspace were neck and neck in a frenzied race to attract the most users to their fledgling social networks. A decade later, Bebo and Myspace were moribund while Facebook boasted more than 1.5 billion monthly active users and its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, had become the fourth-richest man in the world.
Zuckerberg’s position is unlikely to be challenged by anyone founding a social network focusing specifically on academics. One of those people – Richard Price, founder and chief executive of Academia.edu – estimates there to be about 6 million academics globally, plus 11 million graduate students: a mere drop in the ocean of humanity that Facebook is fishing in. Nevertheless, there is serious cash riding on Academia.edu’s struggle with the likes of ResearchGate and Mendeley to be the biggest fish in that relatively small sea.
So far, San Francisco-based Academia.edu has reportedly raised $17.7 million (£12.5 million) from investors, including the multibillion-dollar venture capital firm Khosla Ventures. Meanwhile, Berlin-based ResearchGate has raised at least $35 million from venture capitalists and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. And London-based Mendeley also attracted significant investment before being bought by the giant publisher Elsevier for £65 million in 2013. According to Michael Clarke, president of Clarke & Company, a consultancy that specialises in the scientific and medical information business, figures such as these mean that “the bar for success is high” in terms of profitability.