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Bill Gates Gets In On 'Nerd Facebook'

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- When I first heard about ResearchGate, the German social network start-up aimed at scientists, my first reaction was "Cool. Nerd Facebook."

Well, guess how you can connect with ResearchGate, right through the home page? Facebook (FB).

Beyond using the larger company's database to expand their own reach, however, the two companies have little in common. Anyone can join Facebook. ResearchGate members have to be vetted through the publication of papers.

ResearchGate is newsworthy today because Bill Gates joined its latest $35 million Series C funding round, alongside Tenaya Capital and two other funds, according to TechCrunch .

Competitor, which also coordinates data through Facebook, actually has more members, almost 3.4 million, against ResearchGate's 2.9 million, but it has only gone through a Series A funding round of $4.5 million. Both companies prefer to be compared with LinkedIn (LNKD).

The two also define their markets somewhat differently -- encourages the sharing of raw data and is open to all academics, while ResearchGate claims it already has half the world's scientific researchers on its membership roles.

What's most exciting is how sites like ResearchGate encourage global collaboration among members. Two examples from today's news:
  1. ReadWrite noted the grad student in the Phillippines who posted his failed formula for getting energy from waste oil on the site, then a Spanish scientist found a tweak that made the formula work.
  2. AllThingD writes about how an Italian researcher with equipment but no samples met a Nigerian with samples but no equipment on the site, and how they've published papers about a new, deadly form of yeast on ResearchGate itself.

This kind of collaboration has awesome potential for commercial researchers, who can scour the site for fresh perspectives and relevant data. ResearchGate's business model is to build marketplaces for people and equipment. Business can help by using the site to help find employees, and by trading esoteric gear there.

But the more important point about these sites is they get researchers out of their "silos," the narrow fields they spend their days studying, to see if there's something they're missing in the larger scientific community.

This is precisely how my alma mater, Rice University in Houston, came to be a research power in the 1980s. It had people in disparate fields collaborate because there just weren't many people on the campus, but it found the cross-fertilization worked wonders in enhancing discovery.

The point for Gates, and for some of the other big-name backers of ResearchGate, is to reduce friction among researchers, encourage collaboration and speed breakthroughs. The old world of peer-reviewed research that costs thousands to publish and access is giving way to a more open and collaborative process.

Whether this model can get its discoveries through the maze of "intellectual property" laws and into the market is still open to debate.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.

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