Jon talked with Don Webster of TecBridge last week about what PubTrawlr is, why PubTrawlr is, and all the things that we’re trying to accomplish. The transcript below has been lightly edited to cut out some patter, and account for the fact that Jon can’t talk too good-ish. You can listen to the whole interview at this link.
Don Webster: Welcome to TecBridge radio. I’m Don Webster, your host for today’s show. TecBridge is a regional organization focused on growing entrepreneurship innovation and the knowledge economy in Northeastern, Pennsylvania. This addition to the show is brought to you by our two great sponsors, net credit union and Rhode scholar transport. My guest this morning is Dr. Jonathan Scaccia, and he is the founder and president of PubTrawlr, a technology company dedicated to making science more accessible. A lot to dig in there. Hey, good morning, Jonathan. Welcome to TecBridge radio.
Jon Scaccia. Hey, good morning, Don. I think that’s one of two times I get addressed as “doctor” per year. So thanks for having me on.
DW. I’m actually, I’m really excited to have you on and connect with our audience. I think this is going to be good. Summer’s going by fast though, huh?
JS. It’s bonkers how quickly this has gone by. I feel like I had a whole agenda for July and now I think I got to 75% of it. So it’s crazy.
DW. So Jonathan some of our audience might know you from this year’s business plan competition, but for those that don’t, how about we start with a little bit about you, and then we’ll talk about your business.
JS. Yeah, sure. So, me–I’m a clinical-community psychologist by training, which means I’m really focused on how do we work with people and systems in the communities in which we live to make good things happen? So how do we try to capitalize on the good ideas that are out there– the ideas through science or the ideas that are home-grown– and really maximizing their potential because like from a real foundational perspective, I want good things to happen. I want Northeastern Pennsylvania to grow. I want people to have happy, healthy, and well lives to the best of their capability. And I see us tapping into the knowledge as a good way to get there. And really PubTrawlr is a portion of that work. What PubTrawlr does is synthesizes and summarize scientific literature that’s out there so that people can make a better understanding of it. They can make sense of really thousands of articles on any given topic and try to make better use of these good ideas.
DW. You know, it’s interesting I have to tell you when I first met Jonathan, it was through some friends at the O’Pake Institute down at Alvernia and, and he started talking and I, my head was starting to explode at all the things that he was talking about. So “Dr” is appropriate. I mean, he’s very learned and is really an amazing individual, but I think what we’re going to do today is unpack what you just said, Jonathan, because best knowledge isn’t getting out there and science more accessible. I mean, I think we’ve got to really focus on the things you’re doing before we get there. If you’ve been listening to TecBridge radio, one of the things that we have been doing a one word for 2021, we’ve been having a lot of fun with it. You’re a word guy. You’re an analyst of words, one word for 2021 from you.
JS. So my word, my word of the year is liminal.
DW. All right. That’s we haven’t had that one. What caused you to give me that one?
JS. ‘Cause I, I just feel like all of the work that we’ve been doing at PubTrawlr we’re on the threshold between different boundaries. As you know, Don, we started at a very novel place earlier in the year and we’ve made so much progress yet. Like I have a very clear vision of what the platonic ideal looks like at the end of the road and we’re not there. We have so much more work to do and so much more to learn. And just everything that we’ve been doing just feels like it’s incomplete. We’re trying to cross over into this higher level of quality and we’re making good progress. It’s just, we’re not there. And we have so much more to do before we get to this gold standard.
DW. Okay. So, Jonathan, when we first met you, you got me with some of the storytelling you did around— my audience knows one of the general questions that I often ask early-stage firms is what’s the problem we’re trying to solve. And you started down the path of telling me about a 17-year problem. Can you tell our audience about the 17-year problem?
JS. Yeah, sure. So this is actually surprisingly a pretty real reliable and well-documented phenomenon in the scientific literature. So between when something gets published in the literature –so in a journal like Science or the Journal of the American Medical Association or the New England Journal of Medicine– between when something gets published there, and then when it’s actually used by doctors, social workers, psychologists, other community practitioners, that time can be up to 17 years. So there’s this huge dissemination and implementation gap between what we know works and then when it actually can an impact in the places that we live. And there are whole fields out there that are trying their best to reduce that gap because every year, every month, every day, that goes by there are real, tangible impacts in, in our hospitals, in our community clinics where people aren’t getting the best stuff. And if we’re not getting the best stuff, then what are we doing here? Like, it should be one of the foundational principles of our support system or our medical-industrial complex.
DW. It’s interesting. I think our audiences, we talked, Jonathan, is going to hear firsthand your academic background, your technology background, your passion for learning, but at, at the base 1- 0-1 level, what I loved about what you’re doing, what I love about what you’re doing is you identify at this gap, which is we have this problem, which is we have all this interesting information out there. I’ll say research, maybe. And it’s not getting in the hands of the people who, who could most use it, best use it, who need it, I think. Right. So that’s the fundamental problem. What does PubTrawlr do in response to the problem?
JS. Yeah, so there, there’s a bunch of different leverage points along this implementation gap that we could hit. Where PubTrawlr is hitting, is way, way back at the beginning. What’s been clear from all the conversations we’ve had with community practitioners is that they don’t have the time that it takes to digest scientific studies and, let’s be clear, just picking up a scientific article requires a huge amount of skill, where to get it, know how to read it, how to deconstruct all of, all of the setting-specific jargon, how to interpret the findings, how to generalize those findings into specific practices? And that’s, that’s really, really, really tough to do. And people don’t have the spaciousness to look at one study, compare it to another study, integrate those studies all of that.
So what PubTrawlr does is it takes some artificial intelligence-derived algorithms to rapidly “read” lots of articles and ingest all of that data, combine it, simplifies it to identify trends and topics, and then say, all right this huge, a huge amount of literature, maybe you’re going to get like 5,000 articles on pediatric autism treatment, for example, these are the main topics. Here’s a summary of those topics. And here is an article that best represents that. So rather than trying to distill a huge amount, we’re trying to whittle that down to what’s the take-home message. What’s something that maybe you can pick up and use and springboard yourself into further and deeper exploration.
DW. So it’s interesting, Jonathan, when I think of your company, I think of demystifying actually. My guest this morning is Dr. Jonathan Scaccia, and he is the founder of PubTrawlr. Jonathan, if someone wants to check out your website, which is really, there’s quite a bit of depth there. I really encourage people to go out and check it out. What’s the web address for PubTrawlr?
JS. Sure. So it’s www dot PubTrawlr P U B T R A W L R.com. There’s no E in that; it’s fashionable to drop the E so PubTrawlr without the E. We also have a really active blog where we’re posting pretty much every day on different topics. We’ve been written a lot about the evidence around addressing vaccine hesitancy around some trends we’re seeing in other types of health equity research. So there’s a lot out there that people can dive into in a dynamic way.
DW. So when I first was introduced to the concept of your company, silly me, I thought, what is this an app for? Like going out bar hopping or something? And actually, this is solving some very fundamental problems for people that need access to good information. So one it’s identifying the good information and two, it’s getting it in people’s hands. You identified one of the problems before is that there was this big gap. I think the other problem Jonathan is there’s just a lot of information out there, right? I mean, I think in the business plan competition, you were talking about some statistics with Google, like just the amount of data that people have to just sift through to find what they’re looking for is a big problem, right?
JS. Yeah. I mean, information curation, I mean, this problem is only going to get greater and bigger in scope as the years go on. And being able to curate that– look, I spent years in school learning just that specific skill. And you can’t, it’s unfair and unrealistic and not feasible to demand that of the people that are engaged in community-based support. So like we’re trying to shortcut that step or, or at least shrink that step so that people are going to be better able to access and take the million or so results that you’ll get back from Google into something that’s, evidence-based, that’s vetted and something that can be useful to them.
DW. So, Jonathan, we’re talking about science and research is your target audience, scientists, and researchers. Who’s your target audience for this kind of concept?
JS. Yeah, I think that’s one of them. We’re more interested in the practical aspect of this. So we’re not just looking at scientists, we’re looking at medical or social service professionals. We’re looking at early-stage researchers and students, actually, some people connected to libraries or interested in learning more. And we’re also interested in targeting the regular Joe and Jane out there. I mean, we all know someone who has a chronic condition or someone who has, God forbid, a terminal condition, and we want to be able to stay up to date. So we know what research is coming down the pike that potentially could be, could be useful to them.
DW. A really good point. I hadn’t thought of it that way. And, and all of us can relate to, we’ve got that special issue that cropped up yesterday, or we’ve been dealing with for the last year. Boy, I wish I had more information on this topic, PubTrawlr could be, could be one of those tools, right?
JS. Yeah. Because I mean, again, going back to that, that implementation gap, you might be able to go, let’s say on like web MD to learn about Crohn’s disease, for example. But that’s not going to have the most up-to-date information on Crohn’s disease, which is a very active area of research. There are journals dedicated to it. So, if you’re trying to stay current with new findings, new potential treatments, things that may help you be a better advocate for your condition to your doctor and your care team, this is something that may give you that information and may provide you easier access to it.
DW. One quick question, and then we’ll take a break, Jonathan, this research tool, that you’ve developed, there’s a free version and a pay version. Can you tell our audience a little bit about that?
JS. Yeah, sure. So the free version, you just go to the website, there’s a search bar, and type it what you’re looking for, you want to research autism treatment or research storytelling AND public health. You can do that and do that well. The paid version includes many, many, many, many more articles and does a more robust synthesis. So you’ll get things like topic summaries. So a short paragraph on what a couple of hundred articles are about. You’ll get a more robust trend analysis of what’s happening. So what’s been rising and falling in prominence. So there’s a lot of deeper more engaging stuff you can get from the paid version—
—but listen, I’m a real values-driven guy. Like I want things to get better. And if you find the free version helpful just have fun.
There were some ads at this point of the conversation; you can get them in the source recording.
DW. Welcome back to TecBridge radio. I’m Don Webster. Our guest this morning is Dr. Jonathan Scaccia, and he’s the founder of PubTrawlr. Jonathan, in the first half, we talked about things that were really interesting to me. The best knowledge isn’t getting out there making science more accessible. You’ve got this tool that gathers research data. I think for some people let’s dig into the topic, of what makes you different from Google. And, and I see as Google on steroids, but I don’t know if that’s a fair analogy.
JS. Well, I mean, it’s hard to compete with the big boys.
DW. Maybe that’s why, but I mean, amazing piece of software you have. And so, tell our audience a little bit, how would you compare yourself to Google the search, the search function?
JS. Yeah, but Google, I mean, Google was going to pull from all sorts of different things. I think where we’re PubTrawlr really distinguishes itself is we actually pull from fewer things, but by pulling from fewer things, we know that the quality of what’s going into our analysis is really high. There’s no search engine optimization that goes on in our search. We’re just pulling for the specific things that you’re looking for. And then, then we do the synthesis. So you’re not getting potentially garbage going into the analysis. And that’s the analysis is the second part that makes us really different. You get a list of things back from Google or Bing or Ask Jeeves. And, it’s hard to determine what makes the first result different from the second result.
And then you’re not even gonna go to page two, three, or 150 to see what the searches are. You’re going to stay on your top couple results. So PubTrawlr does that hard work for you. We go to page two, three, and 150, and basically read that information and use that to provide you a summary of all of it coming back. So we’re taking the next step by organizing and basically trying to determine what’s in these searches, what’s in these results, and give you a summary back of all the information.
DW. It’s kind of interesting to me. I want to go back and do a couple of things. So, this whole piece, this whole body of work is associated with implementation sciences, right? That’s a phrase, can you help our audience? What does implementation sciences mean? Cause it’s a discipline and a passion of yours.
JS. It is. I mean, I’ve really resonated with the whole field because of this, like this real innate desire to get the good stuff out there and implementation science is dedicated towards that end. There are, I mentioned earlier, there’s a lot of different points that we can intervene between when something is published and when it gets to use. There are so many different things, you provide training, you can synthesize the work like PubTrawlr does. You can give coaching and technical assistance to frontline practitioners, et cetera, et cetera. So the core is we can do better. We can look at contexts. We can look at the things that make each organization or each person unique and help them tailor the science for them. And PubTrawlr is a part of that overall mission. People have specific interests out there, specific passions that they want to know more about that they’re just not able to, and by doing the hard work for them, we’re lowering the barriers to accessing the primary literature.
DW. Jonathan, the compliment that I would pay you is, is you’re very consistent in the sense that when people meet you, they just get the sense that you’re just trying to make the world a better place. And I don’t say that very often, but I really get that. And it’s the science of making the world a better place that you’re focused on. So let’s talk about audiences for a second. So the one that seemed most obvious to me when we first started talking is this could be a tool for academic institutions. Is that your primary audience?
JS. Yes and no. Yes, because I know that world. No, because like, then we’re just becoming circular and recursive, and we’re just doing the same thing for the same people again. And look, I use the phrase, I’m a recovering academic, and I lapse back into it all the time. So it’s a clear audience cause I know the space well, but I do it just as a first audience. The real audience, or to me, the most important audience are these people on the front lines and these regular people who just want to know more and have that vested interest in knowing more. To me, that’s actually where the real impact will come and like the real difference in helping to close that implementation gap.
DW. Do you have a special niche in healthcare? Is that a particular area of focus or attention? It seems you seem to have a lot of references on the website to healthcare-based research
JS. Yeah. I think the biomedical and social sciences, I mean, that’s what I’m most familiar with. That’s where I’ve worked for the past, I guess 15 plus years. So you got to go with what you know. I know that space more, if you’re going to get into things like metallurgy and geological sciences, I don’t know that that space so I’m not as comfortable working, working in there. So thePubTrawlr logic can certainly be extended to that. But for the time being, we’re focused on the biomedical and social sciences.
DW. Pretty interesting to me. So, Jonathan, you’re a tech company. You do a lot with, you mentioned AI before, natural language processing. How does all of this magic happen? Are you just doing it behind the curtain or do we have a team and tell me a little bit more about that. Who’s helping PubTrawlr be successful besides yourself?
JS. Well, look, I think one thing I’ve learned over the past 10 plus years is I don’t know what I don’t know. And I gotta be humble enough to try to do what works and not try to do everything myself. Actually, I’ll be frank. I struggle with that, where I’ll try to solve a problem on my own and that’s one that’s not effective. And two that’s, that’s not efficient. It’s not a good use of my time
DW. Classic entrepreneurial challenge, though.
JS. Yeah. Yeah. So I’ve tried to make it a point to reach out to different organizations out there within the state that are designed to do this that are willing to help people get off the ground because things like marketing things like doing financials… Like, I guess I can learn that, but, I’d rather like to connect to the people who know what’s going on. So, there’s a couple of people who’ve been really instrumental in that. First is the O’Pake Center at Alvernia University in Reading. They really helped me to basically crystallize what it means to be a business and connect me with different resources and people like TecBridge, that’s a connection that was facilitated through Alverna and O’Pake that helped us and challenge me, but also to provide me the external viewpoints and the external information that helps us to grow and do some of those like business fundamentals.
I mean, if PubTrawlr was just like a tech project. I mean, I’ve already written some like academic articles on it, then that’s the end of the story. But to make this something real that has an impact, there has to be an infrastructure and an organization, broadly defined, behind it. So I do have some interns working with us directly. But I really tried to make it a point to access, to not be afraid to ask them a question, to not be afraid to say, “like, I don’t know,” I don’t know what accounts receivable is, like, how does that work?
DW. You don’t collect them, let’s put it that way.
JS. Yeah. So, like people go to school, people have expertise there, let’s try to tap into them. So that has been something that has really, really helped out. And I think it’s accelerated us because if it wasn’t for people like TecBridge, I frankly would not have a business plan because there’s, I would not have engaged with those basic things around planning that need to happen in order to make a viable entity to move this forward. So it’s just been fantastic to be challenged in that way.
DW. I think one of the things that we can take away from the introduction is everybody can always learn. That’s one of the things that sounds cliche, but it’s so true because there’s, we don’t know what we don’t know, but one of the things that I was really impressed about is when, after you and I talked, you put some work in for the business plan competition and you came out big in an area that’s really important me. Can we talk about your advisory board?
JS. Sure. Yeah. So I’ve tried to assemble a group of advisors that one) I at least know, so there’s some reliability there and 2) have reach and expertise that I don’t. So I have some pretty big names in the areas of public health practice, some academic researchers, some tech people.
I should name them: Soma Saha of We in the World, Rohit Ramaswamy of Cleveland Children’s Hospital David Zimmerman of Mind Design and Development, Victoria Scott of The University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and James Osborn of Envest Asset Management. These people hopefully can help fill the gaps in terms of strategy. The tactical stuff –that’s what I’m working on with O’Pake, and other people–but the strategic stuff, no, I rely on them to be, a phrase I use as critical friends, like, they want this to succeed. And any feedback that they give and any critiques that they give is in the spirit of, we want this to succeed. And I’m willing to take it, I’m willing to integrate that feedback and do what’s best to make the whole thing work.
DW. Your advisory board is amazing, great shout-outs there. I think it’s very impressive. Jonathan, we’re actually down to about the last minute of the show, believe it or not, would you do me a favor? Would you give me the reader’s digest version on the 101-day product that you do real quick?
JS. Yeah, the reader’s digest version is where we’re going to be synthesizing specific topic areas. So if you’re interested in endometriosis, every three months or so, you’ll get a newsletter that says, Hey, in the last 101 days there have been a 550 articles on endometriosis treatment. Here’s what they say. And here are the main points that you should take away. And we’re going to be doing that for literally hundreds of other topics that people have an interest in. So in your inbox, you’ll just get really quick briefs to get you up to date and current about what’s going on out there.
DW. Jonathan, you and I could probably be talking about this for a couple of hours, but what I would like to say is I am one of those guys that’s interested in what you’re doing, because you are trying to make a difference in the world. So we’re excited for you that, and, listen, you’re trying to make the planet, the world a better place. So congratulations for that.
JS. I appreciate that.
DW. All right, really. So thank you for spending time with us today and thank you to our sponsors, net credit union and road scholar transport. I’m Don Webster–peace and strength in the coming week.