Frustrated by the glacial pace of academic research, Daniel Johnston and Andrew Preston decided to propel scientific publishing into the 21st century.
"Everybody thinks of science as moving at a blistering pace, but it's actually one of the most technologically challenged industries out there," Johnston says.
Preston was working as a physicist in Boston when he and Johnston dreamed up Publons, an online platform for researchers and academics to review and discuss scholarly work and, for the first time in centuries, to earn credit for their efforts.
The idea won Publons $300,000 in startup funding via the 2013 Lightning Lab accelerator programme. According to Johnston, who earned a BA in history and political science from Victoria University, it takes 150 days on average to get a scientific paper published, with 120 of those days because of the peer review process.
"The way we publish and share research hasn't really changed in the last 350 years."
This slowness is caused by a lack of incentives for peer reviewers, he says.
"They don't get recognition for their contribution, they don't get paid and they don't even get anything they can put on their CV, so this crucial part of science is seen more as a chore than anything else."
Though Publons started off as a platform to discuss published research, this finding caused Johnston and Preston to switch Publons' primary focus last year to incentivising peer reviewers before publication, bringing on board companies such as GitHub, Amazon Web Services and Makey Makey to sweeten the deal for participants with a rewards programme.
The concept is taking off, says Dave Moskovitz, a Wellington angel investor and one of the first investors to be attracted to Publons.
"The first 500 users took six months, we moved from 500 to 5000 in another eight months, while today Publons boasts nearly 35,000 researchers and 83,000 reviews."
Moskovitz, a self-described failed PhD student, has watched Publons grow from its very early days three years ago, when Johnston and Preston attended one of his Lean Startup clinics in Wellington.
His own experience in academia showed the promise of the core idea and then when he saw the progress Johnston and Preston made during the 2013 Lightning Lab - where Moskovitz was helping as a mentor and evaluator - he decided to join the team. "I really like their approach to problem solving, to building a team and a market. This is going to democratise science to a degree."
Johnston says the next big step for Publons is to set up a base in London where it can more easily establish partnerships with potential customers in scientific publishing and find industry investors.
The company's capital raising, which stemmed from Lightning Lab, came from a number of sources, including the Government's New Zealand Venture Investment Fund and several Wellington-based angels.
Johnston says it has helped build up the company's team and rapidly increase its user base.
Produced in conjunction with the Angel Association of NZ.