SocialSci Releases Beta Version of Online Scientific Survey Platform, With Rewards for Participants

Spit was Leon Noel’s inspiration for the startup, SocialSci, that caused him and co-founder Harley Trung to leave Yale University just months before graduating.

Well, more broadly, it was the hassle of getting participants for research studies while he was a biological anthropology student at Yale, Noel says. But spitting was part of the ordeal. To gather the necessary data for the scientific studies required by his major, he would plant himself on campus, ask students to spit in a cup, and fill out a 30-minute survey. Not surprisingly, it was challenging to convince participants to share their information, and completing any given study often took more than a year, he says.

“There has to be a better way to go about doing this,” Noel says he thought at the time. So he and Trung, a computer science major, started working on in May 2009, as a “way to make the scientific process easier.” Initially, the website mapped the locations where labs and research houses paid for participants to physically come in and donate samples (like spit) or undergo medical tests like MRIs.

By the end of last summer, SocialSci started targeting another pain point in scientific research. “The online scientific survey was really where we could expand,” Noel, the company’s CEO, says. The idea was for a Web-based software platform where users could answer survey questions for social science studies from the convenience of their own computers, without researchers having to flag people down on the street or quad. And the goal was also to make the process fun and lucrative for those participating in the studies (more on that later).

Noel and Trung, SocialSci’s co-founder and chief technology officer, spent most of their senior year developing this side of the platform, but left school in February when they were accepted to this past spring’s installment of TechStars Boston, the startup incubator program.

And it looks like the bet is starting to pay off. They’re launching their private beta today, for 5,000 research participants. Researchers from more than 20 universities have lined up to submit studies to the online pool. (Xconomy readers: 250 of you can sign up here to avoid the wait list for the private beta release).

SocialSci also closed a $500,000 angel funding round earlier this summer, with investments from LaunchCapital, SOSventures, and angel investors like Will Herman and David Cohen. The startup now has six employees and operates out of Polaris Venture Partners’ Dogpatch Labs in Cambridge, MA.

As for related companies, sites like SurveyMonkey have long occupied the space of creating and distributing online surveys. But they don’t have the mechanisms in place to prevent the same user from repeatedly taking the survey and skewing the survey-based scientific results.

SocialSci’s engine keeps track of user responses over time to prevent the same user from taking the survey multiple times, Noel says. And it will flag users who submit conflicting information across different studies. But at the same time, it has no way of tracking or determining the actual identity of a SocialSci user, so people’s information is safe and secure, he says. The site sends a text message as user authentication when you first sign up, but asks that you select a user name completely separate from your identity.

So what’s in it for the survey participants? Following a booming trend in tech these days, SocialSci is incorporating a points system and rewards component into its site. “Every single survey has some sort of prize attached to it,” he says.

Initially, that prize consists of being entered into a drawing for an iPod. But each survey also gives users points that they can accrue and redeem in a store in the SocialSci system for other prizes or gift cards. There’s even the option to use the points to vote for a particular area of research they’d like to see available on the site. It also connects users with surveys online that typically pay a small sum if taken in person; the company takes a small cut of those offerings.

“It enables this broad spectrum of how you want to be paid,” Noel says.

The site is also designed to adapt intelligently to a user’s survey responses over time. Noel likened the SocialSci engine to Pandora, the provider of personalized online radio stations. “As you start taking more surveys, the surveys you can take become more customizable to you,” he says. The company is also planning on feeding researchers the particular demographic of participants that they need.

SocialSci is first offering its service to researchers of social science surveys at the basic undergraduate level. As it grows, it’s planning on opening up to researchers at business schools, then medical schools, and ultimately pharmaceutical companies. As far as its business model goes, SocialSci is planning on charging for the service at the university level, based on the number of researchers a school has. “Our goal is to remove the burden from individual researchers,” Noel says.

On that note, SocialSci is also looking to make life easier for researchers once the results from their studies come in, by enabling the survey responses to be exported to Excel and other data analysis programs. The site also provides analytics of the survey results. “All the strong scientific data that they would have to export and labor over for a couple of days is all done automatically,” Noel says.

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