Reinventing science communication

An interview with the Visual Abstract founders

Information overload - we all have experienced it in our professional and private life. Since the internet has connected the globe the world seems to be spinning faster and faster. A constant flood of information makes it hard to keep an overview and distinguish the useful from the not so useful information. 

Visual Abstract - a newly founded startup from Mannheim is trying to alleviate this problem. By converting the essential information found in research papers into easily understandable graphical summaries they aim to revolutionize the way in which researchers read and understand scientific publications.

Today we have them here for an interview. In the following paragraphs you can find out more about the founder's interesting backgrounds, their long-term vision and their view on Mannheim's unique startup ecosystem.

Having experienced the problem first-hand while working as a cancer researcher, Benito Campos, one of the founders, decided to waste no more time. Together with his colleagues he built an NGO and for more than ten years they studied the needs and pains of medical researchers. They found out that the current process of reading scientific publications is too time consuming and the key learnings often come in forms that are not easily processed by our brains. In addition to that the overabundance of research makes it hard for researchers to find what they are looking for.

While doing his MBA at Mannheim Business School, Benito joined forces with his co-founders Saribek Karapetyan and Gaurav Sinha. Together they founded Visual Abstract, a social enterprise, that is located at the MAFINEX Technology Center in Mannheim.

A short note in advance. Visual Abstract is currently looking for further pilot customers from the pharmaceutical industry. Their contact can be found at the end of the interview.

Long story short. Let's find out what Sari, Benito and Gaurav have to say.

Wherever we looked, researchers were facing the same problem, there was too much research: People couldn’t find what they were looking for and even their best work went unnoticed, diluted among millions of other scientific publications.
Benito Campos, Co-Founder Visual Abstract
Visual Abstract’s design language was carefully harmonized to guide the reader's eye, increase reading speed and enhance content retention.
Visual Abstract’s design language was carefully harmonized to guide the reader's eye, increase reading speed and enhance content retention.

Hello Sari, hello Benito, hello Gaurav, could you please introduce yourselves and tell something about your background?

"Thank you, Florian, for this opportunity to tell a bit about ourselves. We are very happy to be part of the MAFINEX family!

In terms of professional background and personality, we couldn’t be more diverse. Sari, for instance, our CEO, is quite a personality. Entrepreneurship runs in his family and his parents have owned numerous restaurants ever since they moved from Armenia to Spain. Sari set up his first business during his engineering studies in Barcelona. A cocktail bar – actually a very successful one – but studying and working late every day until 3am was hard to combine on the long-term. Sari became a passionate project manager soon after, with an impressive track record of over 100 successfully managed projects in IT and Pharma. He could have done anything, but he left his job at Boston Consulting Group to build Visual Abstract. It was something he had to do. Visual Abstract is proud to have Sari as CEO.

Gaurav on the other hand was born and raised in India among poets, artists and painters. His father is a very respected artist and designer, his portrait of B. R. Ambedkar, the chief architect of the Indian Constitution, still hangs in the Indian parliament house, New Delhi. Naturally, Gaurav pursued a career in design and architecture. He has subsequently worked in the building and real-estate business for many years. But in his heart, he always yearned to continue the family tradition. Gaurav’s father has coordinated illustrators and artists for three decades. Now, at Visual Abstract, Gaurav leads the next generation of designers and establishes a new school of medical/scientific illustration. Gaurav heads all our product management and digital marketing activities.

My background is in medicine. At Visual Abstract, I contribute medical research expertise and head our R&D efforts. Originally trained as a neurosurgeon and as a cancer researcher, I spent the last 15 years either in the operating room or in the lab."

We spent years developing a product that can summarize scientific publications in a graphical abstract format. This format boosts reading speed and content memorization.
Saribek Karapetyan, Visual Abstract

How did the idea and concept for Visual Abstract come about?

"Ten years ago, when sitting outside a scientific conference venue in Oslo, my head was spinning from all the lectures and scientific posters. There is too much science, I thought. There had to be a better way to disseminate research! Together with research colleagues, we build an NGO and for 10 years, studied the needs and pains of medical researchers. And we were gaining valuable insights. Wherever we looked, researchers were facing the same problem, there was too much research: People couldn’t find what they were looking for and even their best work went unnoticed, diluted among millions of other scientific publications. It also became clear that we couldn’t solve this problem as an NGO, we needed capital, people and business knowledge.

That was 2018. That is when Sari, Gaurav and I enrolled into Mannheim Business School and met during our MBA studies. In our master thesis and together with three dear colleagues, we shaped the business plan for Visual Abstract, a mission-driven social enterprise that would help researchers search, find and read scientific publications. In a way, Visual Abstract has been 10 years in the making and now it is time to execute. In 2020, we graduated, one after the other quit his job and moved into the Mannheim office at MAFINEX."

Just think about this: Currently, one researcher saves roughly 50 seconds every time she reads one of our Visual Abstracts. If one million researchers would read just one of these abstracts, they would save years of research time, every day! That is where we are heading.
Gaurav Sinha, Co-Founder Visual Abstract

Why did you choose Mannheim and the MAFINEX Technology Center as the location for the startup?

"We have become very fond of the entrepreneurial culture in Mannheim. Mannheim has been Germany’s hotspot for B2B startups for as long as we can remember and in some current rankings the startup climate was number one in the country, surpassing other startup hubs like Berlin and Munich. Next Mannheim is also one of the largest and best organized startup ecosystems. So, yes, Mannheim was the natural choice.

MAFINEX itself, is a very special place. It is located next to a large train station but when you enter the main building and stand below the tall ceiling you feel like you just entered a completely different place, some sort of startup cathedral. There is a lot of glass and open space at MAFINEX but not in a cold, sterile way: the lounge, for instance, has an aura of tranquility and smells of pine from the wooden furniture. And then, there is the MAFINEX crew. Everyone, without exception, has been helpful and accommodating. All that mattered was that we, as a startup, had everything we needed. MAFINEX even has an own daycare. We are not used to being treated so nicely.

On top of everything, we are few minutes away from our alma mater, Germany’s premier business school. As alumni we have the opportunity to leverage Mannheim Business School’s powerful brand and network. Some of our professors still mentor us to this date, long after graduation and have been instrumental in shaping our business model. It is quite a unique setup."

Together with researchers from all over the world Visual Abstract developed and tested their abstracts to enable a fast and more intuitive reading experience.
Together with researchers from all over the world Visual Abstract developed and tested their abstracts to enable a fast and more intuitive reading experience.

What advantages and disadvantages do you see in Mannheim and the Rhein-Neckar region?

"Northern Baden-Württemberg is the ideal place for a startup, both in terms of its location in the industrial heart of Europe and because of the strong political endorsement for entrepreneurship in the region. The local concentration of leading universities and research organizations is extraordinary. And we haven’t talked about living quality yet.

I once visited a startup incubator in California which was located in the middle of the woods near Santa Cruz. MAFINEX reminded me of that place and there was this notion that we, here in the Rhein-Neckar-Valley, were every bit as privileged as people in the Californian startup ecosystem. That was very motivating. Some people even talk openly about a Rhein-Neckar-Valley. We find this vision extremely appealing and want to contribute our part. For instance, together with Mannheim Business School we recently launched Project Unicorn Factory a podcast series dedicated to entrepreneurship research. We wanted to understand what entrepreneurial research has to say about entrepreneurial personality traits, about the impact of startups on the economy and to learn which factors predict startup success and failure. The project was well received and we are working on subsequent podcasts now to target a broader audience. The question we pose ourselves is: “What can you do for the Rhein-Neckar-Valley?” rather than “What can the Rhein-Neckar region do for you?”.

We know you asked about disadvantages as well. But it is hard to think about anything right now."

The real door opener was the incubator project Up2B, where we had a first chance to present our business to the local ecosystem.
Benito Campos, Co-Founder Visual Abstract

As alumni of Mannheim Business School, participants in the Up2B Accelerator and tenants at MAFINEX, you are already well integrated into the Mannheim startup ecosystem - how important was it for you to find a well-connected and vibrant startup environment at the startup location?

"When we were studying at Mannheim Business School, we had regular events such as our startup club where Next Mannheim or representatives of the Mannheim startup ecosystem would participate. They were going in and out and it felt like they were a natural extension of the Mannheim Business School environment. The real door opener was the incubator project Up2B, where we had a first chance to present our business to the local ecosystem. It gave us a sort of “Stamp of approval”. Everywhere we went people asked: ”You did Up2B, right?”. A few weeks after Up2B we had already moved into our new office at MAFINEX."

One major obstacle is the bureaucracy involved in funding applications. We feel that there is still much room for improvement here, especially with larger, national grants.
Saribek Karapetyan, Co-Founder Visual Abstract
The founders of Visual Abstract. Saribek Karapetyan, Benito Campos und Gaurav Sinha
The founders of Visual Abstract. Saribek Karapetyan, Benito Campos und Gaurav Sinha

What are your plans for the near future and what is your long-term vision for Visual Abstract?

"Visual Abstract is a mission-driven company. We want to improve research and help researchers. In a few weeks, Visual Abstract will launch its service together with a first B2B pilot customer. Together, we want to change the ways in which researchers find and read publications. We spent years developing a product that can summarize scientific publications in a graphical abstract format. This format boosts reading speed and content memorization. Our vision is that one day every research publication comes with such a graphical summary – a Visual Abstract. Just think about this: Currently, one researcher saves roughly 50 seconds every time she reads one of our Visual Abstracts. If one million researchers would read just one of these abstracts, they would save years of research time, every day! That is where we are heading. Our long-term vision, however, is more ambitious. As we all know, the way in which people communicate has changed drastically in just a few decades. Social media networks such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and TikTok have become the norm and new players surge every few years. People’s craving for information in the form of audio and visuals has led to an unprecedented information explosion. We want to empower researchers and non-researchers alike to deal with information overabundance by shaping how they communicate through text and visuals."

What are currently the biggest hurdles for you as a startup in Germany and in the Rhine-Neckar region? In which areas would you like more support?

"It is more of a luxury problem, to be honest. There is overabundance of opportunities if you are setting up a startup. Entrepreneurship is also one of those topics where everybody has something to say and a strong opinion on how to do build a business. With so much information floating around and many funding opportunities it becomes hard to focus. One major obstacle is the bureaucracy involved in funding applications. We feel that there is still much room for improvement here, especially with larger, national grants."

You mentioned that you are looking for pilot customers. Where can people learn more about you and how can they reach you?

"Yes, correct, our focus so far has been academic publishing. The pharmaceutical industry, however, comprises the second-largest medical research community. We see a need for research dissemination and research communication in this industry and would like to explore the potential of our Visual Abstracts with a pilot pharma customer.  Please feel free to get in touch through any of the channels listed below. Alternatively, the number of the Visual Abstract hotline is +49 (0) 711 12292683.

There is more information on us on LinkedIn, Twitter and or on our website, including our contact details.

We would also encourage you to follow our unicorn factory podcast if you are interested in what entrepreneurial research has to say about startups and founders. Everybody in Germany is talking about startups these days. But there is a limit to what we can learn from anecdotes. To complement available content, we want to talk about the research behind entrepreneurship and endorse the growing trend of evidence-based entrepreneurship."

In a few weeks, Visual Abstract will launch its service together with a first B2B pilot customer. Together, we want to change the ways in which researchers find and read publications.
Benito Campos, Co-Founder Visual Abstract

Further Questions?

Florian
Röttgen

Coordinator Accelerator Programs
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