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ARC Cohort 2022

comCensus

23rd September 2022

We chat with Daniele Fanelli from the London School of Economics and Political Science about comCensus, a platform that offers solutions for organisational silence. This project is part of the Aspect Research Commercialisation (ARC) Accelerator 2022 Cohort.

Q: What is your academic background and what are you currently working on?
My background is kind of unusual. I trained as a natural scientist and did a PhD in behavioural ecology, but then I left academia and for a couple of years I was a freelance science journalist. I then went back to academia to study problems in scientific research and scientific communication. Most of my research is devoted to understanding the nature of knowledge, how science differs across research fields, and what factors may threaten scientific progress by encouraging the diffusion of errors, bias and fraud. 

Q: How did you come up with your venture idea? Why did you decide to focus on this idea? 
When COVID-19 and the lockdowns happened, I felt that there was insufficient public scientific debate around the many policies that were imposed on the population from one moment to the next. I was particularly troubled by how journalists, politicians and to some extent scientists themselves presented a picture of scientific consensus around interventions that were clearly untested and new. No one was actually measuring the scientific consensus, so how did we know what scientists actually thought? 

I thus started to experiment with a platform that invited experts selected from the scientific literature to express their opinion on particularly controversial questions surrounding COVID-related policies and debate them publicly but yet anonymously. This platform can still be found at covidconsensus.org.

The experiment was not entirely successful, but it was instructive. I thus started to think about how to improve the platform. I also started to think how it could be made self-sustaining, which is important because this is not really research. If the platform were to survive and prosper, it would need some way to finance itself. That is what brought me to the ARC programme and the process that has now led me to figuring out something slightly different.

Q: What does your venture aim to achieve and how does it tackle the issue?
It’s going to be a much improved version of that original platform, that will offer public and private organisations the opportunity to open up a conversation amongst their members, or invited experts, to discuss consequential questions. As in the original vision, but with many more sophisticated tools, it will empower people who have valuable information to speak their minds honestly and discuss with each other.  The discussions can be made private or public, but either way they will help people understand each other more and potentially reach more consensus on important problems.

Q: How is the ARC Accelerator supporting you in bringing your venture to life?
ARC has forced me to get serious about building a business, and it has helped me find contacts to talk to validate my ideas. Previously, I had followed courses on developing businesses, but the whole experience of being through an accelerator programme, where I actually had to figure if and how what I am doing could be a product that people would pay for, has been unique and invaluable. It’s something that I could not have had anywhere else.

Q: What has been the most useful part of the ARC programme so far?
It’s definitely the fact that I was pushed to develop a concrete business idea. I had to start to think about who my potential users or clients are, what their problems are, and how my solution is better than alternatives. I had to do the market research and validation. I had to find the people I should talk to and then talk to them to see if all those assumptions I’m making about how wonderful my idea is are actually holding up, or if I need to change them. I have changed them somewhat, and it is an extremely informative process to go through.

Q: What have you learned through the programme that you will bring back to your work/research?
I think that this experience is making me think more practically about my research and if and how it makes a difference. In many academic fields, one can build an entire career working on ideas that have little practical relevance or empirical support. I think there is value in this ivory-tower independence, but this is also what allows academia to produce a lot of what is very aptly called “hot air”.

The business world is quite different. You start with a business idea, which is really a hypothesis about how the world works, what it needs and how badly it needs it. And you want to test that idea as fast as you can. There is no benefit in developing it too much before testing it, or in fooling yourself about its value. If it’s the wrong idea, you want to find out as soon as possible, or you’ll waste time and money.

The ARC programme has forced me to go through this brutish process of development. And, whether or not my idea will ultimately fly, this experience has inspired me to take a more no-nonsense approach to other areas of my life and research.

Q: Where can we go to learn more?
The platform is not public yet, but anyone interested can contact me at email@danielefanelli.com to learn more.

 

Photo credit: Antenna via Unsplash