Science, Meet SaaS

One of the largest drivers of tech industry growth has been the rise of Venture Capital investment in startups. Thinking about the way we fund science raises the question, how can we do it better? What can we learn from the tech industry; is VC a viable alternative to government grants? To answer this, we invited Venture Capitalist Alex Flamant of Notion Capital, to talk tech investment, artificial intelligence and the importance of corporate-research collaboration.

Notion Capital exclusively invests in B2B (business-to-business) and SaaS (software-as-a-service) startups. Put simply, tools existing on the internet which you pay a monthly fee for, and targeted towards business use as opposed to the consumer. Both models, it becomes apparent, could be exploited within an academic framework – especially when you consider the idea of solving research process problems with software you can access over the internet. Think about uploading your experimental data to a cloud based analytics platform which can take care of the number crunching and push all the processed data to a dashboard that all collaborators can access - and the great thing is, no hardware is required beyond a broadband connection. B2B works best if you know the implicit issues within a market and have the capacity to execute a solution to those problems (either from the perspective of the founder or the investor). Are there examples of successful B2B or SaaS companies in science? Why are outsiders not seizing such a large market? Are there any issues with selling into the academy?*.

We also chat to him about the motivations behind London.AI, set up with fellow VC Jon Henderson (White Star Capital). Alex recently wrote a white paper on why London is the best place for harvesting growth in the AI sector. Firstly, there is the wealth of fascinating characters in the field stemming from the Golden Triangle - Oxford, Cambridge and London (namely, Imperial and UCL) bringing the grey matter. Then there's the hugely supportive community of fellow startups, angel investors and mentors. Finally, particularly for FinTech purposes where AI has proven its utility, there are the clients - Canary Wharf is only 20 minutes from Central. Makes you wonder: considering how little AI was spoken of 10 years ago in the context of business, what's the next area of complex science to be discovered by large corporates...?

The concept of corporate-research collaboration was the final topic of the day, focussing on Alex's past experience working at IBM Watson ensuring the open platform was best used by both the research and startup communities. IBM understood that the advances they had made in Natural Language Processing could be built upon in infinitely many ways, so instead of exploring these avenues internally they allowed anyone and everyone to make use of Watson. They knew that by using the wisdom of the crowd, innovation was a sure thing. Watson was played with, hacked and tinkered, and applied to situations that the IBM engineers couldn’t have imagined. This level of openness is one that should act as inspiration for the science community.

Thanks to Alex for sharing his expertise - these topics are so important and we can't wait to continue the discussion.

Alex Flamant is a VC investor at Notion Capital focussing on B2B/SaaS companies. He also founded London.AI an event that bring's London's AI community together.

He can be found here: @AlexCFlamant

For Notion Capital: @NotionCapital

For London.Ai: @LDN_AI

*Mark Hahnel founder of science startup Figshare speaks briefly about the adoption of his product within universities, here: http://www.theguardian.com/small-business-network/2016/apr/21/figshare-startup-scientific-publishing-open-up