It’s not everyday that you find a PhD biochemist hanging out in the Shoreditch tech scene, but Vivian Chan of Sparrho is certainly not your average scientist. After researching the 3D structure of a protein in tuberculosis of and bacteria Caulobacter. Vivian’s urge to make an impact on the immediate world around her meant she couldn’t keep herself away from the dynamism of the entrepreneurial world.
She noticed a unique problem when it came to the dated way that scientists made novel research using academic papers and knowing how much it not only holds back progress in the industry, but also limits the public reach of scientific research for the tax payers who fund it, she decided to create Sparrho, along with machine learning co-founder Nilu Satharasinghe.
The pair created an optimised search and recommendation engine that is ultimately a researcher’s digital best buddy, offering up-to-the-minute suggestions on it’s user’s chosen subjects to ensure that they will never be left behind on the ever-speeding information highway. We caught up with the Hong Kong/Australian/East London co-founder Vivian, to discover what the journey from Cambridge science lab to East London co-working space has been like.
How did the idea of the optimised search and recommendation engine come up?
I had a great postdoctoral researcher in my lab called Steve and he would spend about five or ten minutes every morning reading pre-prints from journals that he thought was relevant to the group. He knew what every single person was working on and he could recommend serendipitous papers that you can never find using a linear keyword search. Those kind of serendipitous recommendations lead to innovations. When I realised and I told Nilu that I had this problem and I had this great solution called Steve, Nilu’s background is machine learning so he asked why don’t we digitise Steve? Instead of just one person reading a couple of journals each day we now are using technology to do the same for tens of millions pieces of content.
Sparrho has had a lot of press attention since it’s launch, how have you managed that?
The Forbes article came out because we did some work to find the ‘new Einstein’, based on data we got from the British Library we made a blueprint and took it through recent research to discover who was publishing and working in these fields. We gave this list to Forbes and they were like ‘wow there’s this female 27 year old Iranian woman – there’s my headline!’ And that became traffic number one for quite a while.
Is Sparrho just for scientists?
I always knew that staying on top of science wasn’t just important for scientists and now we’ve got a number of different user groups including academic scientists, journalists, investors (looking at where to invest for research to commercialise), then you’ve got your strategic consultants, patent attorneys, all the way down to concerned parents – one mother for example, her son has ADHD and the medicine for that is quite controversial so she wants to find out what’s the latest research have more informed discussion with her doctor about the drugs.
How did you go from being a biochemist to being an entrepreneur?
Even while working on my PhD I knew I always wanted to solve problems, make an impact and keep learning. The impact in the academic side of things is great but I didn’t see myself as a professor, academia was just so competitive, and I just felt like there were so many people smarter than me! I got persuaded to join CUTEC, a university technology enterprise club and there I got exposed to entrepreneurship.
Sparrho came out of my personal frustrations and has become something bigger. I’ve always said that I was a scientist turned accidental entrepreneur. I love what I’m doing now, and I’m still solving a problem.
How do you think your scientific background has affected your approach to being an entrepreneur?
It has allowed me to think quite analytically and having gone through a four year PhD, has given me the perseverance and problem solving mentality that I think has been super beneficial to be being an entrepreneur.
What was the biggest challenge for you when you were starting Sparrho up?
Defining why my personal frustration was a big problem to build a startup upon – one that was applicable to others, not just those doing Biochemistry. It was a steep learning curve, constantly iterating my pitch and crystallising the problem and product. It was a big change from being in the lab with researchers working on similar projects to pitching in front of a room full of investors!
What have you learnt about yourself since you began doing this?
As sociable as I am, I’m not a sole founder – I do best as a co-founder and with a team. Having great individuals to bounce ideas off helps me strive. I believe especially at this early stage of the startup, the team really defines who we are and want to become as a company. The team as a whole, and as individuals, are the faces behind our brand.
What are you like as a boss?
The team has always been the key. As a CEO, I try to get everyone a mentor because I’m might not be the best person to give all the right advice. I’m not the best person for a CTO to learn from. I want them to learn from the best, I myself have mentors. From there I want to encourage all of them to be as exposed into whatever field they want to be, so one of the KPI’s is not about work but about personal development and who they want to become and how do we allow them and help them to become that? I try to get the team to go out and speak – it’s great that everyone is sociable and very outgoing people who can also present. It’s all about the exposure of the individual, if you help each individual grow then the company exponentially grows.
Where do you draw your inspiration from to keep developing the brand?
I’ve learnt a lot from different industries and I want to keep learning from other industries. I have founder friends who run all different types of startups including unique coffee shops – so understanding the operations of a different type of consumer facing brand also meant that I could ask them questions about how to attract users, if it’s mostly footfall, how they to think about operations to get people to come inside. Optimising the whole shopping experience is very similar to how we optimise UX on our site. Trying to learn from other people and other industries means that hopefully we’ll build something that is really different. I’m learning bits and pieces and learning from a lot of mistakes!
Why did you base yourselves in East London?
Shoreditch and East London is where the tech hub is and we didn’t want to just go follow the hype, but in this area, especially this office, everything’s perfect! For example the number of startups, and the stages of the startups, means that everyone was very focused, everyone is here to work but in a very relaxed atmosphere
But you must miss the Australian sun?
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the vitamin D! However, I love Europe and being in London is the right place for me to be right now, I’m also British so best of both worlds!
What’s written in the future for Sparrho?
We’re trying to look for a couple of people, I’m someone who really wants a diverse team. One of the first things we want to hire is a marketing person – we don’t like normal terms so we’re calling them a Growth Hustler – and they are going to be responsible for hustling all aspects of growth for the company.
How ready is Sparrho in terms of the end product?
The end product is different to the end vision. The end vision is democratising science. There’s a lot of data out there that is scattered all over the place, and there’s also a disparity between scientists and the general public and there shouldn’t be. There’s more effort now from other industries and I think it’s the right time, right now.