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Academic collaboration – a startup point of view

By Carmen E Lefevre, on 20 September 2016

By Dr Jussi Tolvi, co-founder and behavioural lead at Club Soda

Club Soda is a social startup business. We use technology to help people set goals for their alcohol use, and to reach those goals. We also work with pubs and bars, nudging them to being more welcoming for mindful drinkers – customers who want to drink less or not at all.

One of the key values of Club Soda is to use evidence in everything we do, from product development to content creation. We benefit enormously from research findings, seminars and conferences, and talking to academics about their work. And we know that our customers (though we prefer to call them members) also like it that we have some science behind us.

We would like to do more research and evaluation work ourselves as well, but the reality is that we just do not have the resources for much of it at the moment. Most academic research grants may not be measured in millions, but we have to make do with much less, and without secure monthly salaries to fall back on.

And we would love to collaborate more with our academic partners. Of course we will always help them find study participants when needed, and will happily share what we have learnt. But we also have to think of ourselves a bit: if a grant funded academic team creates an app in our domain, it might not be in our best interests to have that app freely available to our potential paying customers. We will always have to have one eye on revenue to pay for our continued existence.

Understanding consumer demand is not a bad thing for academic research either. There is real value in learning from and about people who have made a choice, and spent their cash on a product or service offered to them by a business. Club Soda is more than a set of behaviour change techniques. We offer people membership in a tribe: who you get sober with is as important as who you get drunk with – and we know there is fascinating research material in our community on this topic too!

There is bound to be some tension between academia and business. Sometimes we will have shared aims, sometimes not. We won’t always understand where the other one is coming from. But we believe it is beneficial for us both to keep cooperating, learning from, and sharing our unique areas of expertise.

With that in mind, I wonder whether there are particular types of businesses that academic researchers would prefer to work with?

BIO: Dr Jussi Tolvi is a former academic and City worker, now co-founder and behavioural lead at Club Soda, a startup nudging people and licensed venues towards healthier and more mindful drinking. He studied economics before behavioural economics was fashionable, so has had to work hard to forget most of what he learned at university.