29 June-2014, Kamakshi Ayyar/Firstbiz: When you are looking for something as basic as information on your favorite subject online and find it is not possible to get coherent, well-knit information there, what does any sensible person do? Either look for it elsewhere or ask peers and teachers. Or, if you are ingenious as Adit Gupta, 28, and Sakshi Majmudar, 26, are, and find information ‘fragmented’, then chances are that you will spin that curiosity into an entrepreneurial venture.
The venture, started in 2010, was conceived as a sort of Facebook for science – a way to make knowledge sharing accessible and approachable. Now known as Function Space, it uses the social learning model to make science easy and understandable for all skill levels – be it novices or experts.
In April 2013, both Gupta and Majmudar quit their jobs in the design and IT fields respectively, and decided to focus on creating a science platform full-time – within two months they had a basic prototype of what Function Space would look like. During that period, their current partner Sumit Maniyar heard about their venture through a common friend and soon after decided to join the duo.
Maniyar, 28, explained how word about Function Space got out. “Adit’s friend posted that we were working on social learning science platform on Hackernews, a social news website dedicated to content related to computer science and entrepreneurship,” Maniyar said. Soon, someone picked up the thread and the discussion went viral.
Within a day’s time, the Function Space team had between 800-1000 people sending in requests for invitations to the beta site. As with many startups, word-of-mouth was Function Space’s number one marketing tool, with the team spending no money on advertising.
The team’s idea was to make Function Space accessible for everyone, allowing peer-to-peer and expert-to-novice interactions across a range of subjects. This is done by facilitating three processes around subjects – learning, discussing and problem solving.
The main goal of the site is to bridge the gap between an academic curriculum to the skill-based requirements of the workplace. Through the use of videos, articles, problems, diagrams, equations and codes, the site allows users to interact and collaborate with each other on everything from algebra and applied maths to cosmology and particle physics to artificial intelligence.
For instance, a user might post a query or an opinion on a subject which could result in discussion threads that could include solutions, readings or even more questions and opinions. Users can also share news or post challenges for others to solve. Tabs on the screen allow users to navigate between sections like ‘Feed’, ‘News’ and ‘Challenges.’
The whole experience revolves around collaboration and using a social platform to share knowledge.
Evolving the site
The buzz Function Space started out with helped it get noticed in a few hallowed educational institutions. PhD students and professors from universities like IITs, Stanford and MIT began logging in to check out the material being shared and sometimes even engaging with users from across 190 countries globally, Maniyar said.
But trawling through the mounds of sometimes useless data on the site to find that one IIT professor’s post was a painful task. So the Function Space team signed on volunteers to “sanitise the platform.”
“We get a lot of garbage on the site and maintaining the quality is a big challenge. It’s also difficult to find good talent,” he said. “The volunteers remove factually inaccurate content.”
The team also rates discussions for quality, allowing users to tell the better threads from the ones that are routine or basic.
The team’s strategy and idea for the site seems to be working, with Function Space having over 10,000 registered users and more than 100 topics of discussion and articles authored by well-known science experts. It gets over one lakh visitors a month on an average.
To ensure that users get a complete end-to-end experience, Gupta and his team designed specific instruments like a visual equation editor that allows users to drag and drop elements of a code and a diagram tool. There is also a digital library that holds books related to maths and science, selected and verified by graduates from MIT, IIT and Cornell.
The startup has been entirely bootstrapped with the savings of Gupta, Majmudar and Maniyar to the tune of about Rs 5 lakhs.
As of now, the site is completely free but the team hopes to monetise it once it gains some more traction. “We’re looking at two possible models,” Maniyar said. “We could either offer job hiring solutions for technology corporations or be a publishing platform marketplace for hiring knowledge solutions.”
The site was part of NASSCOM’s 10,000 Startus program in November, 2013 and raised an undisclosed amount from Nexus Venture Partners, a capital venture fund.
Dr Naren Gupta, Co-Founder and MD, Nexus Venture Partners thinks that Function Space scores over general learning platforms like Quora primarily because it is a niche community that it is serving and because of its collaborative learning environment.
“Would anyone expect a Physics Noble prize winner to discuss relevant issues and share ideas on Quora?” he asked. “Function Space could take learning to new levels even beyond MOOCs (Massive Open On-line Courses). While MOOCs are one too many learning platforms, Function Space would become a many-to-many learning and discussions platform,” believes Gupta.
Over the next year, Gupta and his team plan to become a one-stop solution for everything connected to science education. A mobile app is also in the pipeline.
“It’s a big idea with a wide impact,” Maniyar said, “It has the potential to revamp the science learning industry.”