Starolas: The All-in-One Web Application for Academic Conferences

Academic conferences allow researchers and academics to present, discuss and showcase their work. The conference chairperson generally organises the entire event from the paper submission stage, months in advance of the conference, right up to the event itself.

Galway-based company, Starlight, plans to simplify the organisation process for the chairperson through its conference management application, Starolas.

Starlight is a creative lab space of six people that focuses on the creation of web apps. Its diverse portfolio also includes website design and animation.

The name for Starlight’s app, “Starolas”, combines the “Star” from Starlight and “Eolas,” the Irish word for knowledge.

The app is designed to be used for approximately nine months leading up to an academic conference. It contains four key modules:

  • Paper submission and review
  • Online payment and registration
  • Website
  • Delegate management

The final module above allows a conference presenter to upload his or her presentation and biography to the conference website in advance of arrival. The delegate management module will also download the presentation files to the presentation computer to negate the need for the speaker to bring it on a USB key.

Founder and Managing Director of Starlight, Paul Killoran says, “Academics are focused on research. They don’t necessarily want to organise a conference. At the end of the day, their key is that the conference goes well, generates a lot of papers, research and presentations. My objective is to create a piece of software that is robust and will provide that infrastructure. It will make them look really good and in doing that, take away all the pain of how to coordinate the conference.”

In terms of the current web apps available for an academic conference chairperson, Paul explains, “some of the competitors only do about 25% of what we do. For example Eventbrite
and EventElephant do online payment and registration. But we’ve tried to make it a one-stop shop for everything you would need to run your academic conference. We would hope that within five years this product could be the de facto standard for how to run a conference.”

Starlight is also considering adding a social networking tool to the app. Paul explains, “These conferences are not just about publishing papers. They’re probably more about meeting up with your peers from all over the world in the same subject area and then networking with them. What would be nice is an opportunity for you, before you get there, to see all the submissions or the presentations that are going to go on and to see a list of who will present those in a social way, almost like a Facebook.”

In addition, Starlight also hopes to include a feature that will allow the abstract book for delegates attending the conference to be complied through Starolas. The app will gather the individual submissions into one document that can be produced easily by the conference chairperson.

The idea for Starolas first originated from an Institution of Engineering and Technology conference held in NUI Galway in 2008. Starlight was approached by a lecturer to design software for the event. Paul remembers, “I said to him I can write that in a week. Six months later I finished writing it and it broke me. If I had a house I would have lost it. But we had built this amazing app.”

After the event, Starlight was approached by other conferences to use the app. Paul says, “After four or five conferences I thought: we have something here and we should make it in such a way that we can deploy it really really fast.”

Starolas has already been sold to twenty conferences. Paul notes, “We’ve never lost a conference. The first year we did two conferences, the second year we did seven. Then the recession hit so we maintained our seven and we’re hitting seven again.”

Starlight is most proud of having powered the 2009 symposium on Applied Reconfigurable Computing (ARC) in Germany as it was the first European sale of Starolas. Amongst others, it currently powers ARC 2011 in Queen’s University, Belfast and the Western Vascular Institute Symposium.

Paul recalls one particular moment where he realised the potential of Starolas. “I was sitting in Germany at ARC 2009. We had servers which were located in Galway. So I’m sitting there and there’s a guy in front of me with his Mac open and he’s working on his PowerPoint. There’s a presentation going on at the same time. He finishes the PowerPoint, closes it, saves it and goes to the website and uploads it. The presentation in front finishes and he walks down the stairs, clicks on the link and presents. His presentation had gone from Germany to Galway and back to Germany.”

The funding for the app was acquired from the Galway Enterprise Board with match funding from the bank.

Paul advises other budding designers seeking funding that “the best thing you can do is just be completely honest with yourself. There’s no point going in with a business plan trying to sell the bank manager on if you don’t believe in it yourself. To get the funding, we put together a very clear business plan, we showed a product that clearly worked, that was sold twenty times, that had generated x amount of revenue in 2 years and were able to demonstrate that this product would work.”

Starlight aims to have Starolas at alpha (the first phase to begin software testing) or approaching beta (the next phase generally when the software has all its final functionality) by May with a view to showcasing it at upcoming conferences in June.

NDRC: A Bridge between Academic Innovation and the Marketplace

The National Digital Research Centre (NDRC) is an independent enterprise that endeavours to bring ideas nurtured in the academic world into the commercial marketplace should they be suitable. NDRC’s first projects began in 2008 when NDRC itself became operational and it is currently collaborating with 34 partners both in Ireland and internationally.

Although receiving a majority of its funding from the Department of Communications, Energy & Natural Resources NDRC is not a State agency and is set up as a not for profit company. We spoke to Amy Neale, Programme Manager and asked her why there was a need for NDRC or something like it.

“From our point of view we are focused on translating good research investments into commercial impact. So we are focused on what we would call translational research — taking good research outcomes and actually creating some market capital value on the back of those. That can be through licensing technologies or creating new spinout companies. We are very much focused on creating value for our partners and for the economy.

“We have put a slightly different model in place to the pipeline model that you might see elsewhere. We are very much focused on the types of outputs — either commercial licenses or new start up companies — that are in the digital space.

“All of our focus is on digital products in different application areas. We see that in that particular space there is the need for development to take place collaboratively.”

How does the process work?

“We set up and incorporate joint ventures between ourselves and an academic partner and an industry partner all of whom are sharing the risk to share the reward. Projects tend to be between eighteen months and two years. So we are just beginning to see the first outputs now and the earliest results from some of those projects.

Determining value is, “…an ongoing process throughout the lifetime of the project. From the very first engagement what we are trying to do is drill down into the market potential and who the customers are likely to be for any given idea.

“We start off with an evaluation process before we make a decision to invest in a project. We’ll ask people who have a good idea to put it down on paper. We will give them guidance on doing that but we will ask probing questions about; the problems they are trying to address, where the solution comes from, what the market looks like, what the competitive landscape looks like, who the customers might be. We’ll begin to probe what they think a likely route to market will be at that stage.

“We’ll then bring on board some international evaluators to have a look at the very earliest stage. They will provide us with some feedback from an expert’s position as to the potential of the idea. On the basis of that feedback we bring the team back in to pitch in front of a subset of our board. The NDRC board itself is balanced between academic and commercial partners.”

Where in the funding and enterprise system does NDRC fit in?

“What we are trying to do is create a bridge between research investment and venture capital. What we are trying to do is derisk technology before they go before any kind of venture investment. We are looking to reduce some of the risks that investors would typically see in the early stage technologies that are coming from the research base.

“For us that means getting some kind of validation from the marketplace. All of our projects have a focus on user trialling and market trialling at some point during their lifespan to ensure that we are not just developing technologies that nobody wants.

“We absolutely see that there is the need for a different sort of vehicle that helps academics get their technologies to market and we see that there is a gap in the market providing that. That is the gap we are trying to fill.”

If you have a project that NDRC may be interested or simply want to find out more you can contact them via their contact details at the website.

Mendeley: Creating Connections Between Researchers

Mendeley is a service that provides a tool for researchers to easily comprehend the nature of the readership surrounding a particular academic paper or collection of papers. Not only does it determine the credibility of material by means of social proof it also provides reader recommendations which makes it easier to collect and collate a library of material on a given subject.

It was founded by three Phd students in Germany. One of them, Dr. Victor Henning, wanted to be able to look at a paper and see how the citation network connected that paper to the other papers he was researching. It was from this initial curiosity that Mendeley evolved.

We spoke to Ian Mulvany the head of New Product Devlopment and asked him, how that original inquisitiveness led to the discovery of the problem which they set about solving.

“From the end user point of view, for the scientist, one of the problems they have in managing their information is that it is a bit of a mess. The academic articles that they access, that they publish, that they download from the web mostly come in the form of PDFs. Managing the metadata around that is painful.

“It’s like you take a highly structured piece of content and you put it through a sausage factory and you end up with this digital object which has practically no metadata associated with it as far as the end user is concerned.

“But there’s another problem which is even bigger. It is not just about knowing the smaller piece of information that you are interested in. The bigger problem is, how does that fit into the bigger global picture of the entire academic content and the entire world of academic literature? How does the article you are reading connect to an article that someone in a different field is reading? How do you know about the other people who are reading the same kind of things you are reading about?

“So what we have done at Mendeley is create a single tool which sits on your desktop and helps you manage your individual articles. We mirror all that activity into the cloud so we can see what people are reading right now and how many people are reading articles on a particular topic. We can also see how many people are reading a particular article. Our vision is to use this user activity around their local usage of PDFs to create connections between researchers.

“The more people that use it, the more crowd sourced the value we generate out of people’s usage. Using our client application as a base we have created the world’s largest search catalogue for academic papers which also gives you social information around the usage of those academic papers.”

How does this compare to what Google is doing?

“Google have a product called Google Scholar which indexes content. But what Google don’t have is access to the individual collections of articles that someone has decided that they are interested in.

“They provide many of the search services and discovery services but they don’t know what people are actually reading. They might know what people have browsed to but once someone has actually got their article Google doesn’t know anything else about them.”

What is the role of the academic publishers in this area?

“They have a lot of really rich information that they could use to generate interesting services on top of the content for scientists. Publishers have full access to the content. If they are looking at their server logs they know who is reading the content. They know who the authors are. But there has been little interest from the publishers in doing that kind of thing.

“From the point of view of the academic publishers it is purely a volume business. They just need to get as much volume out the door and sell subscription packages to libraries. If you look at the bigger publishers it is no longer enough for them to be a content paywall. They need to be providing services rather than just content.”

All networks, social or otherwise, have privacy issues. How do you handle that at Mendeley?

“We anonymize the information around who is reading what paper. The benefit to a user for using our service is if they synchronize their data with our client based service they can keep all of their information synchronized between multiple machines. As soon as the information passes through our servers we know what the reader information is but we anonymize that in the online catalogue.

“If you want to be even more private around your data you can stop information from going up to our cloud but then it won’t sync between the different machines. You can contribute to this online catalogue of usage information without exposing your own personal collection. We don’t identify paper X is read by reader Y. We say, paper X is read by X number of readers. This percentage are in America this percentage are in Europe. This percentage are professors, this percentage are undergraduates.”

Could you give us a brief example of how it might work for a user?

“When people create an account with we ask them for their academic status; undergraduate, graduate, Phd student, professor and so on. We ask them what areas of research are they interested in. We make the aggregates of those attributes around the papers available through our API.

“You could ask the following question through our API, “In the last year, what has been the most read by undergraduates in biological sciences in North America?” Presumably, that is going to be quite a different paper than the most read paper by people who are senior professors. These are the kinds of questions we are enabling people to answer that nobody else is really doing at the moment.”