Prolific wants to challenge Amazon's Mechanical Turk in the online research space

Prolific, a U.K.-based startup that wants to make it easier to conduct online research, has raised $ 1.2 million in seed funding.

The round is co-led by Silicon Valley-based Pioneer Fund, and Altair Capital, with support from various angel investors based in the Bay Area. Prolific is also a graduate of Y Combinator and presented at YC’s demo day this past summer.

Founded in 2014 by Ekaterina Damer and Phelim Bradley, doctoral students at Sheffield and Oxford universities, respectively, at the time, Prolific offers an online tool to easily recruit and pay research participants and conduct what it calls "ethical and trustworthy" research. The idea was born out of Damer’s own frustration with existing options, including Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk), when carrying out research for her own PhD.

"I was struggling to recruit participants for my research," she tells TechCrunch. "None of the available tools were fit for purpose because they were either obscure, expensive or really slow! By 'obscure' I mean: It wasn’t clear who the participants were, how they were treated and whether the data quality would be any good! I considered Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk), the most widely used tool for academic research, but it only had U.S. American and Indian participants and a distinct lack of European ones."

This led her and Bradley to create Prolific as a better alternative to MTurk, and it wasn’t long before other colleagues at Sheffield and Oxford started using the product. Just a year in, Prolific was being used by researchers globally, including those from Stanford, Oxford, Yale and UPenn.

"It's grown from there almost purely through word-of-mouth, with over 3,000 customers now from researchers and companies around the world!," says Damer.

Prolific also counts the World Bank and several Fortune 500 companies as customers, and claims to reach a network of 70,000-plus active research participants from a wide range of backgrounds.

"The problem is that behavioural research on the internet is broken," Damer explains. "Finding participants is difficult and slow and the data you get from other platforms is often low quality because incentives are not aligned or you’re dealing with legacy platforms that don’t leverage tech.

"Customers want participants and data they can trust, but they typically have to resort to platforms which provide disengaged people who sign up for pennies. Or they even end up collecting data from fraudsters and human-assisted bots. Researchers across academia and industry are desperate for higher quality sampling solutions."

To fix these issues, Damer says that Prolific is building research technology that makes people-based research "more effective and efficient" than existing solutions, from sourcing participants, to prescreening for the right target demographics, to automating participant payments. The startup also employs what it calls proprietary user validation technology that uses statistical algorithms and machine learning to catch bots and bad actors, which Damer says plague many of the company’s competitors.

"It's actually quite shocking how competitors often squeeze their participants (or 'workers') because they see them as a commodity," she adds. "This means that participants are either disengaged or try to game the system. In contrast, we have many positive incentives built into our platform. Participants can prequalify for studies so they never get kicked out randomly, we encourage and collect two-way feedback… researchers love that they can talk to participants directly through our interface in case questions, feedback or concerns arise, and we mandate a minimum pay of $ 6.50 (£5) per hour. All of this creates trust and virtuous cycles that power our growth."

Damer frames Prolific’s broader mission as making "trustworthy data about people more accessible." "Our core belief is that access to high-quality psychological and behavioural data is the foundation for great research and ultimately, for progress in business, tech, and society," she says. "The bigger vision is to build the most powerful and flexible infrastructure for research on the internet."

That’s not to say that Prolific doesn’t have competitors that are also attempting to make online research and insights more accessible and of better quality.

Companies like CloudResearch and Positly utilise MTurk’s API, but Damer says that has limitations because "great data and great research starts with a great community," which, arguably, MTurk isn’t.

There are also well-established operations such as Nielsen, Dynata (formally Research Now SSI), YouGov, Cint, IpsosMori, Qualtrics Panels and SurveyMonkey Audience, along with newer players like Attest and

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