Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research

Sami Benchekroun on Morressier, Virtual Conferencing, and Online Networking

April 24, 2022 ScienceTalks Season 1 Episode 9
Insights Xchange: Conversations Shaping Academic Research
Sami Benchekroun on Morressier, Virtual Conferencing, and Online Networking
Show Notes Transcript

Join host Nikesh Gosalia in a conversation with Sami Benchekroun, co-founder of Morressier. Sami talks about the circumstances that led him to Morressier, a combination of his natural penchant for network structures and existing inefficiencies in academic conferences. Growing up with scientist parents who came from poorer countries, Sami was inspired to create Morressier to improve global accessibility to knowledge. Sami shares insights based on his experience with running Morressier (like the one thing people should never do while hosting online conferences). He discusses possible networking solutions in the absence of face-to-face encounters. While Sami emphasizes the need to incorporate current online networking tools into virtual conferences, he thinks that the future leans towards a hybrid model.

Sami Benchekroun is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Morressier, a virtual and hybrid conference platform geared towards the scientific community. He has significant experience in virtual conferences and scholarly publishing, and has achieved a Master of Science from ESCP Europe. A man of many hats, Sami is the founding member of the Edtech Founders Club, a guest lecturer at the Technische Universität Berlin, and a polyglot proficient in 4 languages. Sami can be reached via his LinkedIn or Twitter.

Insights Xchange is a fortnightly podcast brought to you by Cactus Communications (CACTUS). Follow us:

 Nikesh Gosalia [00:00:29]

Hi everyone!  Welcome to 'All Things SciComm.'  'All Things SciComm' is a weekly podcast brought to you by ScienceTalks, a media platform that aims to make science accessible to everyone.  In this program, we dive into the latest from the sci-tech world.

My name is Nikesh Gosalia, and I'm joining you from London.  Let's get started with today's episode.

Today, I'm chatting with Sami Benchekroun.  Sami is the Co-Founder and Managing Director of Morressier, a provider of comprehensive virtual and hybrid conference solutions.  He has over 10 years' experience in virtual and hybrid conferences as well as scholarly publishing.  As you can imagine, he's been heavily in demand these last couple of years.  Thank you for making time, and it is great to have you on the show today, Sami.


Sami Benchekroun [00:01:19]

Thank you so much for the invitation. Thank you.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:01:22]

No worries.  Let's get started.  It's more like a trivia for you.  When did you first think about Morressier and the kind of work?  Was it kind of already brewing in your mind or did it just happen because of some sort of frustration or a eureka moment?  I'm sure listeners will find that very interesting.


Sami Benchekroun [00:01:43]

I think it's a combination of two dynamics in my life, if you will.  Whilst I was studying, I was working for a company that would build network structures on conferences.  By nature, I'm rather a computer geek, and I love to build network structures and Wi Fi structures and so on, and then we did that for academic conferences.  Very naively, we stumbled into the world of science, and we saw there is a concept of printing out a paper and actually sharing results, very relevant results on paper.  In the beginning, I thought, well, that concept is interesting.  Then we saw that that concept is just the standard.  That format of a paper poster is the standard, and that was the moment where we thought, I feel that there are some inefficiencies that we can actually work on, and that we can digitize at the UI, organize much better, connected, learn from it much better.

That was one part, and the other part is, both of my parents are actually scientists, and my father comes from Morocco, my mother comes from Poland, and they always dragged me to conferences when I was still a very small kid.  I at least got a little bit of that feeling.  I think I didn't really realize anything back then.  I grew up in that environment.

I guess my parents coming also from back then poorer countries, they always had that concept of accessibility of knowledge and accessibility of content in their mind.  I very early found out that there is sort of a greater injustice that there are some parts of the world that do not have access to these high-profile conferences that are happening in Europe and the US.  I feel that that injustice, that lack of accessibility also was inspiring me and driving me to that date to say, well, let's create a world where everything is made accessible to everyone.  Everybody is working on the same basis because overall it benefits humanity as a whole.  If you have collaboration partners around the world that have access to the newest scholarly outputs to preliminary results, as they happen.  This is a big vision for us.  Morressier has the headline, accelerating scientific breakthroughs, and I guess this started very, very early on.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:04:16]

Wow, that's so inspiring, Sami.  Despite the fact that I've spoken to you so many times, I think we've never went into this story.  That's a really powerful share, and just how all of it has come together over the years, like you said, childhood, going with parents, then working and the tech side in you looking at those strands and then having the courage to start something and being so comfortable with it.  I can see that.  Like I said, it's not that – I mean, yes, of course we want to change the world and we want to make it easier, and knowledge has to be accessed by everyone, but it's not a very hard stance that you have on that, and you're kind of enjoying the journey and learn on its way.


Sami Benchekroun [00:05:03]

Absolutely.  But I must say, right, the whole magic of Morressier is 100% the team, I need to just acknowledge.  I'm just a very small part in that entire equation.  We have by now a team of over 100 people.  I think the last number that I saw is we're over 30 passports, 30 different nationalities in a team of over 100, I think 110 or so.  People in three offices in Washington D.C. now, in London, in Berlin.  I just moved to Washington D.C.  New contact, new people that are joining our journey at Morressier.  All those brilliant people here at Morressier, I am so fortunate to work with such a great group of people from all sorts of backgrounds, countries, mindsets, and that's the true spirit of Morressier.  I'm really blessed every day that I get the chance and the opportunity to work with them.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:06:07]

Humble as always, Sami.  That's great.  As everyone knows, virtual conferencing was practically revolutionized in the last couple of years.  We all know what drove that change.  But I'm sure you've seen various learning curves and mistakes made by users of your own conferencing platform.  Can you tell about some of these, especially those made by the conference organizers?  What are the things that they shouldn't do when hosting a virtual conference or an online meeting?


Sami Benchekroun [00:06:40]

Starting with the most complex question right at the start here, very good.  Where should I start, I must say.  When it comes to virtual conferences, I believe that looking back in the last years, especially scientific conferences have been quite similar for quite some time.  The innovation cycle and how these are structured hasn't been too dramatic.  Nevertheless, we saw in the years pre-pandemic, a lot of dynamics of people having the idea, the urge, and the interest, to change a little bit their communication structure, they had already the urge to bring a couple of content items online, they had the urge to also do a couple of innovative steps, if you will, to their conferences.  When the pandemic hit, my impression was that a lot of scholarly societies had made already a couple of thoughts on that topic.  They were already in the right mindset, if you will.  It wasn't really that ‘oh, what do I do now' type of atmosphere.  It is a ‘oh, what do I do' type of atmosphere, but we have thought about it already a little.  It was a little bit more prepared chaos than one would have thought.

What we still saw in those early days of the pandemic was still that pressing need to do things the way they always have been.  In March, April, May, June, all those first conversation that we have had is, please Morressier, please Sami, we just want to have the conference physically, and we just want to do it online.  Let's just put it online.  I believe when talking about what one should not do, I think that's really the first thing that one should not do is to just because it worked offline, does really not mean that it works online.  We've seen historically a lot of evidence for things that worked offline do not necessarily work online.  I'm giving you an example.

The whole dynamic about exhibitions, booths, different halls, all those elements, the exact replication online is really something that is not made for the digital world.  Digital and online has great advantages, but there are some limitations.  If you look at the conference per se, the need of a conference is that there's a multitude, there's the 'let's drink something at the bar' type of element, which is hard to transfer into the online world.  There's the information exchange, which actually works very nice online.  Then there is that entire concept of exhibitors sponsoring and so on, that needs a lot of rethinking.  You cannot just apply booths to the online world.  It needs some sort of advertising, sponsoring dynamics, new packages, but they need to re-flash it out very, very clearly.  If you want me to point out that one thing that people shouldn't do, I would say that's exactly the one.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:10:04]

Got it.  Yes.  Thanks for that, Sami.  When you were talking about maybe comparing it with an in-person event, one of the things that came to my mind is when it comes to virtual conferencing, there's always the question about networking.  Right now, networking remains a prime drawback of virtual conferencing.  Maybe it is not.  Of course, I would love to hear your thoughts, but if virtual conferencing is to become the norm in the future, what networking solutions are out there for organizers, what different features could conferencing platforms have?


Sami Benchekroun [00:10:40]

Yes.  I would love to touch on the foundational hypothesis that virtual conferences are the norm in the future.  I would love to share my view there, which is virtual conferences is not going to be the norm in the future, my perspective.  It is going to be a combination of online and offline.  It's going to be some sort of hybrid or blended or whatever name we all come up with.  But it's going to be a mixture.

Already in the beginning of 2020, which is interesting, right before the pandemic start, I gave a talk on exactly that topic to say, let's take off the pressure of content exhibitors and so on from conferences, maybe not exhibitors but at least content from the conference, from physical conference, and move things online, move things to the digital realm, so that we don't wait for a year, then we meet for 2-3 days, and then everything happens, and then we wait for a year.  Then again, we meet for 2-3 days, and then everything happens.  It is a much more, let's say, the continuum.  You meet, then you continue the conversation online, then you meet again, and then you continue the conversation online.

If you will, I think the networking part will be a big, big topic for when we start meeting in person again.  I truly believe that this human approach of meeting face to face, having a glass of water, wine, or whatever it is, is crucial.  Yet, there are ways to obviously network online.  I think we don't need to reinvent the wheel.  We've seen great social media platforms online, we've seen great community platforms online, we've seen great networking.  LinkedIn works very well for constant communication, for constant sharing.  We've seen all those tools already strive in the online realm.  The goal for us now is to actually include everything into generally conferencing and very specifically scholarly communication and scholarly conferences as such.  We believe that we've seen great conferences, the networking part works very well online, but hybrid works always, in my understanding, much better.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:13:06]

Yes.  I like that, Sami.  I think what I'm hearing from you and I think it's a big clarification not just for me, but in future for the listeners as well is that we are not looking at virtual conferences to replace all the elements of the in-person conferencing that we used to do, but I think we both can agree COVID has taught us one thing is, we question really the need of maybe traveling for every single meeting, traveling for every conference, and I'm sure we don't need to really penalize ourselves for not attending maybe a conference because now we have great access to networking online, to learning online, to communicating online, to all of those elements.  That's essentially what you're saying, Sami, that I think both can coexist, both are fantastic solutions, which can complement each other.


Sami Benchekroun [00:14:05]

A 100%, and just to add on that, I think also, even though I said there were already dynamics pre-pandemic, people were thinking about these things.  The pandemic definitely accelerated significantly all those innovation in that field.  Although we had already great learnings, just throughout the time of the internet, if you will, the time of online conferences at that scale that we're at, just started.  o the innovation cycle is we're in the middle, there's great new ways that are being discovered, I'll elaborate my very own company, we have a large innovation team that really talks with a lot of scholars, a lot of societies, and we're trying to innovate all the time exactly also on that space.

There's more to come, but I feel that the most important information there or let's say outlook is the combination of everything that happens online, perfectly combined with offline in-person meetings.


Nikesh Gosalia [00:15:04]

Absolutely.  I think that's a very wise take, Sami.