Column Editor: Darrell W. Gunter (President & CEO, Gunter Media Group)
Column Editor’s Note: I am very pleased to be part of the ATG family with the introduction of my column titled, “The Innovator’s Saga.” I chose this title as the innovator’s work is never complete; it is truly a work in progress. — DG
As technology evolves, the innovator must balance many choices to ensure that his/her business remains an ongoing concern. Our mission is to highlight those individuals and companies that “put it on the line” every day to improve the critical path of scholarly research. Our stories will include both the success stories and the “lessons learned” stories. I look forward to your feedback and comments, both good and constructive, as our goal is to provide you, our reader, with the best and latest information on the innovators.
Our inaugural column focuses on a gentleman who has established the world’s largest open access book publishing house, IntechOpen (https://www.intechopen.com/). Now he has launched the world’s first streaming of livestream and virtual content repository for scientific conferences, Underline Science, Inc. (https://www.underline.io/).
DG: Alex, can you share with our audience a little bit about your experience, knowledge, background and education, which is quite fascinating?
AL: I graduated from an engineering school in Croatia. I’m of Croatian origin. After graduation, I went to do the Ph.D. studies at the Vienna University of Technology in Austria, and I worked there as a robotic and artificial intelligence researcher for six years or something. I spent some time at the EPFL, Lausanne. It’s a quite famous university.
I was doing my specialization in multi-robot simulation software. The research I was doing was in the area of multi-robot systems for the manufacturing industry. But, as I was always kind of curious in biology as well, I was researching the behaviors of a flock of birds and a swarm of ants and how to replicate those behaviors in multi-robot systems. Robots were simple as a unit, but as a group they should perform intelligent behaviour.
DG: Very Fascinating!
AL: Yes, so I was kind of intrigued with engineering and biology as well. It was quite interesting.
DG: After that, you decided to launch a company called IntechOpen, but it actually started because you wanted to find a way to communicate and collaborate with other researchers and scholars. Is that correct?
AL: Yes. So, you need to understand, it was a quite different time back then. It was really hard for us, you know, to find the high-quality literature which we needed for our studies, for our research. Even though Vienna University of Technology is in Europe, their library has quite a big budget for subscriptions; but, they were struggling as well. And I remember, one time I wanted to get one book from one famous professor from Japan, and then I called my colleague in Tokyo, and then he was photocopying the book and sending it to me via post, you know. Those were the days.
So, that was one reason why we started to publish open access. We didn’t even know that it was called “Open Access” or that there was a movement. We just wanted to share our journals and books free of charge with the robotics community. The whole idea started as a hobby project. We were just Ph.D. students, so quite young, and we wanted to connect with our peers. You know? It was quite exciting to communicate with famous professors from MIT, Stanford, et cetera. That was the reason. And then the whole robotics community and artificial intelligence accepted our open access idea; so, I decided to leave academia and then to try, you know, entrepreneurial life.
DG: Right, and that launched IntechOpen which is now the world’s largest open access book publisher.
AL: Well, we didn’t start from a garage, but, yes, from a small office at the Robotics Institute at the university. Yes, it was 15 years ago. I was the book editor of our first book, and most of the chapters were written by my colleagues and my friends. At this moment IntechOpen has published almost 5,000 original book titles in all areas of science, technology, and medicine. Yes, it’s quite a successful story, I would say.
DG: You have some Nobel Prize winners as authors and editors, correct?
AL: Yes, actually, we have three Nobel Prize winners as our authors. Yes, quite exciting, other famous people as well from all over the world. We are strongest in technology, since that was our core discipline. Yes. But, medicine is quite a big field as well.
Intech is in Europe, in Croatia, in the UK, in London, in China and has a presence in India and the U.S. It’s a global business and a global company. Most of our authors are from the U.S. and Asia, and that’s quite obvious since most of the research is done in those two parts of the world.
DG: And as an entrepreneur, one of the key things that I’ve witnessed over the years, because I’ve gotten to know you since 2016, is that you’re able to hire really talented people to run your operation. What are the criteria that you use to select the people who do such a good job for you?
AL: I mean, you need to make a lot of mistakes during this journey, you know. The saying is, as you grow, the more I practice, the luckier I get. So, I think that you need to be, I mean, at least that’s for myself, you need to be honest with your people, with your team. You need to inspire them. People need to see that you have honest goals and your vision, and they need to identify with that. It’s a daily job. The job I would say, it’s not easy; but, yes.
DG: And at some point, you were publishing both books and journals; but, I think it was in 2017-18, or whatever, you decided to just focus on the book program.
AL: I think it was in 2015.
DG: Thank you for correcting it.
AL: Yes. So, our first open access book came from a robotic open access journal. We decided to collect the ten most read journal articles and gave those authors the opportunity to write more on the same topic and create an open access book. And I would like to say that it’s the world’s first scientific open access book; I cannot claim that, but I have a good feeling.
DG: I think you’re right!
AL: Yes, it came from a need, or coincidence, I can say. During those few years, we figured out that we have a unique value proposal in open access books, and expertise, knowledge and technology. At that time, it was not possible to buy the software for the publishing process to produce books, open access books, so we were kind of forced to make our own system. And now that was all unique, and then we decided strategically to focus on the books and we are the best in the world, yes, so far.
DG: That’s great.
AL: And SAGE approached us and they acquired our project.
DG: And you found a great home for your journals because SAGE is a very reputable publisher. And so you have IntechOpen, a successful business, and then I read an article about your Yellow Submarine gourmet hamburger chain in Europe, which is voted one of the top 50 gourmet hamburgers in Europe. How did you decide on a hamburger franchise for your second business?
AL: It started as a hobby project, again. I like to cook a lot, and we used to live for a while in New York, and then I got hooked on one famous organic burger chain. I noticed that in Europe the market is not so crowded with those concepts. And, together with my friend, we started one outlet. I mean, we didn’t know what to expect. But, five years later, we have 150 employees. Yes, it’s a growing chain.
DG: And I must say, when I was in Croatia a year ago, I had the opportunity of enjoying a Yellow Submarine gourmet hamburger, and it was delicious, and the service was excellent, and the environment was very funky, in a good way.
AL: Yes, yes. I mean, that “Yellow Submarine.” (laughter)
DG: Yes, that’s right. The IntechOpen business has opened an office in London, and you have established a very successful gourmet hamburger business. So, what prompted you to take the next step to launch your third business, Underline Science?
AL: As you and all of us do, we attend a lot of conferences during our career or life. And I noticed a great lack in this ecosystem, you know, in a way, frustration as well. When you get to the conference, first, you need to get to the conference. You need to have time and money or energy to fight with jet lag, and all of the processes. When you get there, there are always multiple sessions. You need to make a choice about which room to enter and which lecture to attend. When you come back home, there is no platform where you can re-experience the whole event. And that’s kind of frustrating, you know.
There is no repository platform where you can just log in and watch the lecture of your favorite colleague, mentor and/or leader from the last conference he or she attended. That’s something we need to change. With today’s technology, this should be easy, doable, and quite manageable.
DG: And so Underline Science is a virtual streaming video conference platform that works both in a live environment and a virtual environment. Wow! That is dynamic. So, what you’re saying is that if there’s a concurrent session going on, you’ll be able to attend the live event if you want to, and then catch the other ones pretty much “on demand,” as it streams.
AL: Yes, yes. It’s the world’s first live streaming and repository platform custom-made for scientific or academic conferences. We have basically two value proposals, one for the conference organizers and one for scientific societies. We are giving them the possibility, technology, and support to organize online events, which is quite important today, especially in this COVID-19 environment. In the past we have lacked one for end-users — a repository of the most important scientific conferences in their field. Users can watch the lectures from wherever, whenever.
Due to the COVID-19 situation, everything is under lockdown. And we have great technology and great features. We are building new features every week. And since we are, in a way, not from that industry, we are thinking out of the box.
On the Underline site, when the whole event ends, it all becomes part of the Underline Science repository platform. So, we are hosting and broadcasting the lectures. We are enriching the lectures with the transcriptions, translations, DOI numbers, which we can talk about a bit later on, slides and PowerPoint presentations. You can cite the lecture. You can share it. You can search. You can connect with the speaker, since we know that the community is one important aspect of the conferences in general. We are building the community features on the platform. So, you can read the short biography of the speakers. You can start a collaboration. Yes, it’s quite exciting. We are developing something that’s not seen in this industry, especially, so far. I’m quite excited about that and thankful for my team.
DG: Very exciting. And if I understand correctly, you’re transcribing the lectures, which means that they’re searchable.
AL: Yes, yes.
DG: The demonstration that I saw earlier, you were able to change the language from English to Mandarin, to Spanish, at a click of a button. Tell us about this particular transcription service that you’re using that really translates it at a very high level.
AL: Well, we are using machine learning coupled with linguistic experts to build our transcription and translation feature. Yes, it’s quite fascinating to see how you can change the language “on the fly,” and, I mean, with this, I want to say to the world that the language should not be a barrier to science. Science is a global discipline, and we all need to be unified, and our next phase is to work with the conferences which are being presented in the non-English languages, to translate those to English as well. Yes.
DG: You’re one of the few publishers that I’ve ever heard to voice that, that you feel that science should not have language as a barrier versus saying that science should be in English, that science should have no barriers. That is awesome, Alex.
AL: I mean, that’s a huge problem in today’s world, and I had that problem as well, and you can see it. We need to be more inclusive to all researchers. There are a lot of countries doing great science, but they’re not English-focused. So, you’re…
DG: So, Underline Science is capturing conference content which is groundbreaking, simply because before you’d attend a conference and that information was forever lost, or it was just in the minds of the people who attended the conference, but that record, that scholarly record, wasn’t shared with anyone. I guess you were shocked that no one was providing this level of service, especially when you think about the larger publishers who have the financial wherewithal to build such things.
AL: I mean, the importance of conference lectures is, without any question, very important. It’s not unavoidable, but it’s one of the most important parts of the scholarly communication process in general. And, you know, all the ideas people present and invest a lot of their time and energy to prepare for the lectures, to do the proper presentation, all of that just vanishes after the last day of the conference. You know, there is no platform where you can re-experience that.
DG: And what about the poster sessions?
AL: That’s something, you know, which needs to be changed. I like to say that the lecture is just another type of information exchange. Like journals, like books, like conference paper proceedings. And with today’s technology, you know, it’s the right time to build the repository which preserves that information for many years to come. With regard to the poster sessions, we are doing that, especially during our online events, you know, it’s an important aspect of the conference for the conference organizers and societies. So, we’re building poster session rooms, virtual ones, yes, but our focus is video lectures.
DG: So, your first Livestreaming event for the AAMAS Conference is coming up.
AL: Yes, AAMAS is one of the leading AI conferences in the world, and we are quite flattered, again, that they have chosen Underline Science as their partner to do the online event. It means a lot to us, for me especially. I’m a former AI scientist; yes, and to have such a famous and important event as one of our first customers, it shows us that we have a promising future.
DG: That’s right. I know you’re excited about Underline Science, but what do you think is the most exciting feature of the platform when you’re talking to a prospective conference or publisher?
AL: Yes, I would say, the most exciting features are the ones that are being built. So, let’s keep it, in a way, a tiny secret.
AL: We just started, so what you see now on the platform is our starting position, yes.
DG: And when you go to the site, you can see current conferences that have been recorded and see the lectures.
AL: Yes, good point, Darrell. So, we are offering to conference organizers the service of filming the lectures at the venues as well. We have our internal team and a network of freelancers all over the world. We can film the conference wherever it is happening, and we did that for a dozen conferences before this crisis.
DG: Which is nice. And the profiles of the presenters, it’s very professionally done. So, it looks far better than what we see on other social media platforms or academic platforms. So, congratulations on that.
AL: Thank you. We are just now building the new features, as I told you before, so the speakers will have their dedicated pages where they can log in and see the really detailed analytics of their lectures. They can see who is watching their lecture from each country, for how long, how many minutes and they can connect with those as well. And I would like to mention, as well, that we have a Q and A feature so that you, as a viewer, can pose a question to the lecturer, and then the lecturer gets informed through our system, and then they answer your question. That’s really important; then it’s the start of some collaboration as well.
DG: Yes, I’m happy you brought that up because you have a team behind the scenes that are actually producing the events. So, the organization putting on the event, they don’t have to worry about introducing people, or moving things around to introduce people, share screens, and all of that. Tell us a little bit more about the Underline Science philosophy and about how to run an effective conference, whether it’s live or if it’s a hybrid.
AL: Yes, so we are here to help societies, publishers, or individual conference organizers. So, we are not just giving them the technology. We are giving them the support and knowledge to organize the online event. Through our team, or through technology, or through our marketing services, you know, in the end, it’s the same. We are here to support them.
So, together with them, we are building the scripts, really detailed scripts for each day of the live event. We have a professional studio, director, and a professional moderator who is moderating the event. We are focused on the visual identity, the branding of the whole event because it’s important in the end as to how you present your conference. The content is important, but the visual identity is important as well. Our team is coming from the gaming industry, and the professional TV industry, with big show experience. So, they have a lot of knowledge and expertise in doing the live-streaming.
DG: Let’s talk about the Coffee Break rooms for people to interact at the virtual conference.
AL: Yes, that’s something we are building right now since, as I said, we know that the community is one important aspect of the conference event as well. So, we are now building the feature where people can attend one virtual room and speak informally through video chats. We call it the Coffee Break Room Sessions.
DG: Yes, it’s going to be cool. And then to build on that, to help to fund the conference, you are able to build exhibit halls for sponsors where sponsors can demonstrate their services.
AL: Yes, we are kind of mimicking the behavior at the conference, the activities which are happening at the conference booths or stands. So, sponsors or exhibitors can have their leaflets, you know. They will have video chats so that they can communicate with the attendees. They can present their products or services through video, through different digital types of communication. So, in a way, the digital world is quite diverse, I would say. You just need to be creative and, yes, you will have amazing products.
DG: So, Underline is bringing forth this great platform, and the research community is going to have this new tool, right? This new area of information that they’ve never had before. So, when you mesh the two together, hopefully, it’s going to move scholarly research forward in a more productive way.
AL: Well, I hope as well that the future for Underline Science is, I can see it now that it’s promising, it’s exciting for the research community as well. I mean, it’s the new tool, a new platform for scientists, it’s like a new pool of knowledge or information, which did not exist. So, imagine in a few years when we get to more content as well, you know. We are building great stuff, and people are already noticing that, and I’m quite excited. Regards to the… I thought you were asking about the research community in general, yes.
DG: Yes, I was looking at how this is really going to help the research community to be more effective, to be able to capture more information. As we know, researchers build on each other’s ideas. And having access to this conference information, even poster sessions where it can spur someone’s ideas or enhance someone’s idea, I think it’s going to be extremely valuable.
AL: Yes, yes.
DG: What closing thoughts would you like to leave with our audience about Underline Science?
AL: We all need to work together now towards an open society, connected world, the world in which we are, in a way, leveling the playing field. I always like to emphasize that we, as humankind, we need to build the bridges, not the barriers. And that’s the way to go forward. And that’s easy to say but it’s, yes, it’s not so easy to do, but we at IntechOpen and Underline Science, I’d say it, we are one tiny brick in that bridge. Yes, I would like to conclude with that.
DG: That was well said. Build bridges and not barriers. Very profound. Alex, thank you for being our first guest for “The Innovator’s Saga.”
AL: Thanks for inviting me.