The easy going South African's software program, Qiqqa, is designed to sift through the hundreds of papers that form the bedrock of any PhD in an intuitive manner, making them accessible and easy to reference at any point during the research process.
According to James, Qiqqa not only eliminates the mad thrash through masses of print outs and post-it notes that typify the finale of the PhD process, but will also eventually be able to recommend the best sources for research in the science based fields.
The program was born out of necessity. James decided that if he was to achieve his own academic aspirations - a life spent studying different degrees - then he'd have to avoid ploughing through the tomes of irrelevant research that characterised his first postgraduate outing, a seemingly inevitable side effect of higher end academic research.
Following computer science and maths degrees and a maths and finance MSc in South Africa, James spent five years in derivatives trading (which he thoroughly enjoyed) before being drawn back to the best place to satisfy his natural interest in "everything," university and a PhD (ongoing) in computational linguistics.
"When I went back I did not want to make the same mistake, reading the wrong stuff," says James. "I wanted to eliminate the 'shoe box' process."
This shoe box process entails writing all your references down, storing them, possibly in a, er, shoe box, and then wading through them as the thesis deadline looms.
"People do their PhDs without Qiqqa and reference 300 papers, but they have to look back to all their notes," he says.
Qiqqa works exclusively with PDFs, the format of choice for academia, and character recognition functions allows users to read back scans of hardware sourced materials. James acknowledges some competition of sorts exists already with services such as Zatero, however he believes these are limited offerings.
"Qiqqa is going to take the search out of research, that's the ultimate objective," says James. "It is more a research manager than a reference manager, which is what the other tools are like.
"They allow one to easily find papers and file them, but just leave it there; tagging is limited, the cheapest is about €80 and it is not geared towards the student market."
Eventually James wants Qiqqa to be able to recommend papers through a passive ratings system, "extracting the value intrinsic in the simple act of reading," as he puts it.
The program will simply count how much time is actually spent on a paper, Qiqqa will be able to provide a measure of usefulness that will act as a rating without the need to rate.
"By building a product that is so useful to researchers, their active utilisation of all the features passively provides very valuable information that can then be used to benefit the Qiqqa community as a whole," says James.
"That is where the algorithms I have developed and am developing for my PhD will then come to bear because there is real data to work with. You can't fill in 250 plus ratings from the last two years."
This kind of service is only really viable once the product has enough people using it however. James wants at least 40-50,000 users though 15,000 "wouldn't be a tragedy." However, only seven months into its release and Qiqqa has had 18,000 visitors and 5,000 users, representing a healthy yield.
As well as intrinsic ratings, James believes in the potential of social media and the importance of friends' recommendations for success. As Qiqqa usage grows, so will the web site, which will increasingly become a place for people to go and interact, ultimately improving the product.
On the surface of it, the academic market has many attractions. The simple fact is that there's an annual tsunami of new students coming in that swells the pool of potential new users. "There are 520,000 postgraduates in the UK, Qiqqa would be useful for upwards of 200,000 of them," says James.
Of course there's an equal number that leave at the other end, but he believes many of these will take Qiqqa with them into the next stage of their careers, be that academia or private sector research labs: organic growth based on experience and word of mouth.
This would be where the free version at the heart of the Qiqqa business model ends and the revenue models begin.
"There's 3,000 papers being published a day in the medical sector and pharma are paying people to read these in case there is something in there massive," says James. "We can open the markets for heavy users or groups that share the tool such as pharma."
Like many of the new wave of Cambridge's software start-ups, Qiqqa also has a strong social enterprise aspect and wants to see groups in developing countries take the product on.
"I would like heavy use in second and third world institutes to be free, but the first world can pay. There will always be a free version."
The tool is most popular in the UK and US, but is reaching new international ground slowly. A Qiqqa story recently appeared on a Brazilian web site and some 200 people instantly signed up in Brazil and Portugal. Italy has also been gaining some traction recently.
However, Qiqqa is only available in English, though James says the programme is intuitive enough to be picked up in a foreign language along with the training videos. The Brazilian posting was made in English and though James has no immediate plans for new language versions, the idea remains an option.
"We welcome feedback from everywhere and if there's an overwhelming amount from France for a French version, then that's an easy investor pitch: '£30k for one year into several languages.'"
New funding isn't foremost in James' mind right now though. So far, Qiqqa has been self-funded and James is happy to keep it that way. The only major impending expense he foresees is the financial drain that may come as more people sign up and place greater weight on the web server.
"I want to keep the funding effort away as long as possible," he says. "However, a lot of the people I speak to are interested and after spending five years working in finance in London, I have contacts."
James says he isn't driven my building a huge business for the sake of it however, it all comes back to the reason Qiqqa launched, he wanted a better system for his PhD work.
"I'd love to stay in Cambridge and this is how I'd like to do it. If it does not work out we'll put it on Qiqqa open source and I'll go back to finance, but I think it will work and I want to be able to go back and do more degrees."blog comments powered by Disqus