In Conversation with a Mentor | Interview with Abhishek Goel

In Conversation with a Mentor (ICM) Episode 1 | S2

Season 2 of In Conversation with a Mentor’ kickstarts with Abhishek Goel, Co-founder, and CEO of Cactus Communications. Together with his brother Anurag Goel, Abhishek co-founded Cactus Communications in 2002, focusing on providing English editing services for researchers in Japan. It is an international enterprise with a head office in Mumbai and offices in Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, and many other cities serving customers from over 173 countries.

Podcast Duration: 32 min 19 sec

Note to listeners: This recording was done over a zoom meeting call due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has resulted in a slightly diminished audio quality with some mild disturbances in the recording, compared to a studio-quality recording.

[00:00] — Intro

You’re listening to IndiaBiospeaks- voices from the life science explorers in India.

[00:06] — Shantala Hari Dass

Hello and welcome back to In Conversation with a Mentor’, on the stories of some path-breaking mentors across the life science research community. In this series, we talk to researchers, science managers, administrators, and entrepreneurs based in the life sciences. Enjoy listening and do send us your feedback at indiabiospeaks@​indiabioscience.​org. In season two of In Conversation with a Mentor’, we are talking with people who have come from a non-life science background and who have made a big impact in the community. Let’s delve into their inspiring and insightful stories. We start with someone who is very special to us. His organization, Cactus Communications, apart from having a global presence in publishing and skill building has been a partner and avid supporter of IndiaBioscience. He’s none other than the co-founder of Cactus Communications Abhishek Goel. Together with his brother Anurag Goel, Abhishek co-founded Cactus Communications in 2002, focusing on providing English editing services for researchers in Japan. Cactus communication is now an international enterprise with a head office in Mumbai and offices across the world in Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai, and many other cities serving customers from over 173 countries.

So why wait, let’s welcome Abhishek Goel from Cactus Communications to this conversation. Hello, Abhishek. Welcome to In Conversation with a Mentor’. We’re very pleased to have you as a guest for this episode. 

[01:49] — Abhishek Goel

Thank you so much. This is very exciting and an honor to be able to chat with you today. So, looking forward to it.

[segue music]

[01:59] — Shantala Hari Dass

Abhishek, Cactus is now in a very interesting position growing rapidly in both geography and breadth of activities. But let us rewind a bit to the start. Can you tell us a little bit about your journey?

[02:14] — Abhishek Goel

Yeah, happy to do that. So I did my schooling in Darjeeling. I went to a boarding school there. I grew up with the views of the Kanchenjunga range.

From there I came to Mumbai where I did my 11th, 12th, and also did my B.Com. It was during my college days that I joined an organization called AIESEC that served as a major catalyst in helping transform me and helping me gain the confidence that I needed to be able to start Cactus. So AIESEC was what I consider my first job though It was working with a nonprofit organization, it was during my college days. In fact, I grew and learned so much in the process that after I graduated from college, I continued for one full year as president of AIESEC in Mumbai. So that is where I learned how to manage teams, learned how to sell, learned how to market, and got a lot of international exposure. We had friends from around the world and eventually went on an exchange to Japan. So that was, I think a little bit about my background.

[03:19] — Shantala Hari Dass

Wow. From the enviable views of Kanchenjunga, to then Mumbai. Against this backdrop, how did the idea emerge to start a company like Cactus Communications? One that is focused on scientific writing and editing.

[03:34] — Abhishek Goel

So I had no idea about this industry. Like I was saying earlier, I was in Japan on an exchange program through AIESEC and I met a professor at the university of Tokyo. My main idea was to come back to India and start a company that does waste management, garbage collection, garbage recycling. So when I met him, he gave me a lot of valuable advice for the business I wanted to start. But at the end of the conversation, I was walking out the door and he stopped me and he asked me, Abhishek, can you edit my research paper?” And I had no idea what that meant cause I’ve never written a research paper in my life. When he asked me, I refused. I said, there’s no way I can edit. I don’t have the same subject area background as you and I won’t have the time. I’ll be busy starting a company and hopefully, you know, working to make it successful. He was very persistent and I’m grateful for that. He was very unlike, what you would imagine, a typical Japanese person. So he was very persistent and he encouraged and pushed me to edit. In fact, he went back to his desk and took out a hundred dollar note and came back and gave it to me saying that I insist you edit and I insist I give you this because otherwise you’ll go back to India, you’ll forget about me and if you take this, then you’ll be obliged to reply to me. So I took that note, but it’s not that after that conversation, I thought, hey, I should go back to India and start an editing company. That was far away. That was not even something that we were thinking of. On my way back, I stopped by in Singapore to meet waste management companies in Singapore. And I remember sitting at the cyber café when an email came from the professor, the email said, here’s my attached document. Please edit it. I sent it off to my brother who at that time had resigned from McKinsey & Company. So I said he has plenty of time, let me send it off to him. Anurag looked at the document. He sent it off to our mother. So my mom is very excited. Our mom is very excited about doing new things. She edited the paper, sent it back to me, I sent it off to the professor the next day. When the professor received the document, he sent a long email saying, thank you so much Abhishek.This editing is the best editing I’ve received in my life. I’m so grateful, etc, etc. That was when Anurag and I started discussing that what happened is something so strange because my mom is also not from the professor’s subject area background. My mom in fact, is a high school graduate. She didn’t even go into college, but she went into a Catholic school so English is very, very good. So we found that something strange was happening. And while discussing, we realized that here it was a professor at the university of Tokyo, which is Japan’s most established, most prestigious university, the most international university, asking a stranger. I was a stranger to him. He’d not see me edit, he’d not see me write. I’d met him just for that one hour. Asking a stranger to edit his works and then being very happy with what I send across. He had no expectation of when I would send it across. He was totally dependent on my whims and fancies in terms of time, in terms of what I end up delivering.

So we started trying to study this a little bit more. And what we realized was that because the language of science communication globally is English, researchers who are not native speakers of English come at a terrible disadvantage. And because I’d lived in Japan, I understood Japanese culture, I understood how sometimes if one doesn’t speak English, one can come across as not being knowledgeable enough. And that then became a big motivation for us. How can we bridge the gap? How can we make it easier for Japanese researchers to submit their papers in English and be respected in the process? So that became a driving force, of course, even after we started the company, so we started the company maybe six months after this episode of me meeting the professor.

In fact, an interesting anecdote is when I wrote back to the professor asking, saying — Hey, we are looking to start this company, What do you think? Is it a good idea?” He sent back a long email saying it’s a terrible idea. Please don’t start a company like this. Japanese researchers will not trust an online company. Japanese researchers trust people they meet, please don’t start a company like this. It will fail. And at the end he mentioned that, but if you decide to start, I will support you. And that he was true to his work. He did support us. So we are grateful for that, but he was right in what he said. It took us about 18 months after we started to get our first, the first researcher to submit a paper online, because it was difficult to inspire trust in a website that was new, not well known at that time. This was 2002, right? So at that time transactions on the net were, and especially global transactions on the net were still considered very, very risky. Not many people knew how to do it. Not many people were doing it. So it took us 18 months to get our first customer. So many times we said that, okay, maybe we thought it’s a great idea, but it is not. But yeah, we are happy that we persevered and a good sense prevailed at that time. And we decided to continue because now we believe it’s a problem that we are helping solve and we are helping researchers around the world. So that gives us, makes us feel very, very satisfied.

[segue music]

[08:46] — Shantala Hari Dass

What a fascinating story on how you pivoted to land on scientific writing and editing. Starting a company on your own and running it for nearly 20 years must be a rollercoaster ride. What were some of the challenges that you faced during the inception of Cactus Communications? 

[09:08] — Abhishek Goel

So just to start by clarifying that I didn’t start this on my own, my brother and I co-founded Cactus and we continued work in Cactus and even today we work together. But you are absolutely right that there were many challenges. It wasn’t, uh, simple. It wasn’t easy. So the first challenge, like I said, it took us 18 months to get our first customer. And that was extremely challenging. At that point, I was traveling to Japan, maybe three or four times a year spending two months there each time and my role there was to try and meet people, meet researchers, meet companies, translation agencies, and try to establish the need for an English editing service. What we realized was we were fairly successful in working with companies. But we were not so successful in working with universities and researchers, because they wanted to understand the subject back area, background of editors, they wanted to understand how many editors we have, and even if we met some researchers, some researchers were in material sciences and other researchers was biomedical sciences, and it was extremely difficult to be able to have editors who were specialized in all possible subjects areas. 

[10:16] — Shantala Hari Dass

And how do you think the challenges of today are different from those?

[10:20] — Abhishek Goel

So on the market access side, it was a challenge because people were not trusting our websites. On the supply side also it was a problem because it was obviously impossible to have editors from so many different subject areas join us immediately, right and having the budgets to be able to do that. So both sides were a problem.

Other problems were that, the initial model was, we wanted to build an in-house team doing all the editing, and that was extremely difficult because editing at that time, wasn’t a well-established career in India. So if someone had a degree in the sciences, they wanted to pursue the sciences, they didn’t think or their parents, well-wishers didn’t want them to enter a company that did editing, especially a new company that had just started. So it was extremely difficult to find folks who were passionate about science and passionate about writing and editing. So then we had to actually, a couple of years later, we had to tweak a model where we went freelance and we went globally freelance.

So then we started freelancing globally to be able to find the best freelancers, according to subject areas. And even today, most of our editing is done by freelancers globally who have a subject area specialization in any of the things they edit. So that’s how we overcame the challenge around having enough editors to edit the kind of work we started receiving. We were clear of course that we wanted to provide editing services by experts because out of that experience, we said that no researchers should be subject to asking Abhishek, who’s not from the subject area or Abhishek sending off to his mom. So we didn’t want that. So the idea was always to have science editors, people who know the science, who know research publishing and who can add value in the process of editing.

The challenges today are quite different. So we have since moved from scientific editing, we’ve expanded and work in many of the areas, including science communication. So when we started out, we were only working in the space of pre-publication, that is if researchers need to get published, they would come to us and we would help edit and make the research of publishable standards. Now we also work in post-publication. We also work with pharma in medical writing. So the various areas we work in, each of those areas are unique, are different and bring its own sets of challenges. But it’s an exciting journey.

[segue music]

[12:51] — Shantala Hari Dass

You have a unique vantage point Abhishek. Having come from a sort of outsider position, did you find it challenging to make inroads into the life science community, and for someone who might be in a similar position, how did you overcome these challenges?

[13:12] — Abhishek Goel

So you’re absolutely right. It was initially challenging because we didn’t understand the details of being a researcher and what it meant to publish research. But in some ways it was also an advantage because we talk these days that if we knew, if we were from the background, we would’ve never started the company. Because we would’ve found it difficult to imagine, that we would be able to imagine in 2002, if we were imagining, we want to recruit freelancers from around the world from different subjects, serving 500 different subject areas and be able to allocate the right paper to the right freelancer, we would’ve given it’s impossible. But because we didn’t know so much, then initially when we started, we said that anyone who’s good in English who has a degree in English can edit. So that was the first phase. And then gradually, as we learned more and more, we kept changing the model and the way we delivered.

So being an outsider, sometimes it’s an advantage, because you don’t know all the challenges. So you are a little naïve and you enter in thinking that you have all the answers and you follow all the problems. So that is an advantage, but it is extremely important at the same time to recognize you’re an outsider.

And you asked about advice. So I would say what we did was we read a lot about the industry. We spoke to a lot of researchers, we were always asking and always learning. So I think that is something that any outsider, entering the industry needs to do. So while the advantage is that because you don’t know so much, you are not paralyzed and you’re able to actually work and tweak to try and make things better. But if you arm yourself with the knowledge after you decide to start, then it’s always beneficial because then the scale-up is better than faster.

[segue music]

[14:59] — Shantala Hari Dass

20 years is a long time. In this time, along with the company, you have grown too. So how would you describe your growth as an individual? 

[15:14] — Abhishek Goel

I’ll just take it a little prior to starting the company. So before I joined AIESEC, I felt that I had no confidence in my abilities. I wasn’t able to take any responsibility per meeting. I was scared of speaking in public, but not just speaking in public. I was scared of even a sales meeting. So if I went for a sales meeting, the first few sales meetings I went for, I was petrified. So the learning started there where, because I was exposed to challenges as a student, as a young student, and I failed and I learned and failed and learned by the time I left, I said, I felt I’m ready to conquer the world. I felt I was very confident. I felt I could do anything that I set my mind to. And that energy gave me the conviction, the courage to venture into this, which was completely unknown. And that served us well, for about 8, 9, 10 years. That served us really well. But in 2012, I had a crazy crisis. So from the outside, if anyone looked at the company, they would see the company as fairly successful. I think 2012 was when we were ranked in the top 10 best places to work in India. Researchers around the world, we’d expanded, beyond Japan to Korea, China, Brazil, Taiwan. The researchers in India were getting to know us. So anyone looking at the company from outside would feel that, okay, you know, this is very successful. Everyone should be very happy and Abhishek should be very happy, but I was not happy. I was miserable inside. I had crazy feelings. So at that point I just moved back from Japan. My wife and I moved to Japan for three years. And then we came back around 2012 and I went through this crazy crisis of self-doubt, wondering if it was just luck that everything had happened, wondering if I had anything to do with it, feeling constantly judged by people on my team, feeling that everyone is judging and saying that, oh, it is because his co-founder he’s doing this and he doesn’t have any skills. And it just created this mess in my head where I was on the verge of collapse. Later, I got to know that many people experience phases of what they refer to as imposter syndrome. So it was only later that I realized that, prior that I had no idea, I just felt it was very, very real. So that was when I happened to meet my coach and mentor Sameer Kamboj and through a journey with him that I took, which was a journey of self-discovery, I actually discovered myself fresh. And I think since 2013, I have been constantly learning and growing as an individual each year. And this is one of Cactus’s guiding principles today that we need, the guiding principle is be conscious and self-aware, and take charge of emotions. So what my realization has been is if we don’t take charge of our emotions, if you let emotions fester in us, if that just continues to grow, grow, grow, then at some point it just, then it’s very difficult to come out of it. It takes a lot of effort to come out, but if we start taking charge of the emotions and not ascribe blame to everything else around us, we have a better chance of recouping.

So, that is one emotional crisis I went through, but however, I’ve grown. I think all my viewpoints about life have changed. Earlier, I was, okay, you need to work 18 hours a day. If you’re not working 18 hours a day, you aren’t true to your work, which I realized was a very flawed way of thinking. So every single thing about the way I thought we should live the way I thought we should work, all of that has changed. I would say a much happier person today, a much better person. So I feel sorry for the Cactus employees who worked with Cactus in the early days, but I’m sure when they look back at Cactus, they obviously have fond memories.

[segue music]

[19:41] — Shantala Hari Dass

Thank you for that refreshing honesty, sentiments that many will find relatable. Cactus Communications has been broadening its gamut of activities. Working with institutions, and governments covering a variety of topics. So what does the future look like?

[20:02] — Abhishek Goel

So when we started out, we started with the researcher by accident, as I mentioned earlier. But, over the years, we’ve just grown to understand and learn, meeting hundreds, maybe a thousand thousands of researchers collectively as an organization. And the way we think of the company moving forward is we are dedicated to helping the researcher. We think that there are a lot of challenges that the researcher faces, that the researcher should not be facing. Say when it comes to grant funding and constantly facing rejection, when it comes to publication, when it comes to establishing impact for the research and as we know, 80% of the research papers are not cited. So there are various areas where we think researchers currently have challenges that no one is looking seriously enough to try and solve.

Another big area is skill development and mentorship. So I think there are some very good, very strong mentors in academia, but unfortunately, there are also many researchers who don’t have access to strong mentors in academia. And this is through worldwide, not just in the Indian context. It’s worldwide. So we are currently working on platforms that help the researchers improve their own productivity so that they have time to focus on research. So the platforms we are working on to improve productivity, the platforms we are working on to improve their skill, to provide mentorship support, to provide a general sense of camaraderie amongst other researchers. An average researcher spends about 60% of the time, If they spend six hours looking for papers to read, they spend four hours actually reading. Again, that’s a proportion that doesn’t make sense. So how do we really bring the top three papers that any researcher should read to stay on top of their research every single day? So these are various platforms we are working on. We are bringing it all together under an umbrella called Researcher.Life. We are also working on launching and it’s actually live right now, paper​pal​.com. That is a writing assistant for a researcher. We know that many researchers use a tool called Grammarly and what we found lacking in Grammarly is it doesn’t understand or deal with scientific content well at all and any researchers who use Grammarly will understand that. But because there are no strong alternatives, researchers continue to use Grammarly. So Paperpal right now is also being used by many publishers, academic publishers. We have what is live right now that researchers are finding useful.

So all of this is to work in the area of helping the researchers improve their productivity.

[22:49] — Shantala Hari Dass

And what are those new platforms that you’re working on?

[22:53] — Abhishek Goel

There are two other areas that I like to briefly talk about. One is science communication. So we are extremely, extremely passionate about science communication. We think that there’s a lot of research that is applicable, that people can use. So research that you can use in your life, right? So policymakers can use research, patients can use research, caregivers can use research, even management professionals can use research. But because research is written and published in academic journals, research is written for specialist-to-specialist communication.

So we are trying to create videos, infographics, brain summaries, media summaries, summaries for policymakers so that research is better consumed because we believe that if research is better consumed, then humanity moves forward in a better way. So that’s an area that we are extremely passionate about. We are currently working with organizations globally, universities globally, and, starting to work with funders to improve, you know, the availability of research in terms that a wider audience can understand. Since the last 10 years, we’ve been working in the life sciences space, where we work with pharmaceutical organizations and device makers to bring their drugs or their products quicker to market. So we do this in various ways. So now we are looking to expand beyond that, there are a lot of new genetic startups or precision medicine startups. So we are looking to take that, take knowledge of the last 10 years and help these startups to be able to demonstrate the veracity of the claims, to be able to scientifically demonstrate that, with scientific rigor. So, that’s what we are doing. So we do a lot of writing, we do a lot of reviews, so we are quite excited for the future. What started as a chance accident in a meeting with the researchers has fortunately helped us realize that researchers are what move humanity forward. If you think of all the progress we made in expanding lifespans and exploring of the outer worlds, better quality of life, safer life, all of that’s been possible through research and yeah, so we are excited for the journey and the way to move forward.

[segue music]

[25:06] — Shantala Hari Dass

Those are some great points. It’s lovely to hear from someone who has such a vision for the community. Looking to the future, what are your hopes for science communication?

[25:21] — Abhishek Goel

So I think the new science technology policy that the governments are rolling out, that’s a fantastic policy and it’s very, very forward-looking. The challenges we’ve faced in the past have been that science communication was not considered something important in India previously. I believe that we are seeing that that is changing very, very rapidly. So that is what we are excited about. The other challenge in India with respect to science communication is because India is a country of many languages, so that brings about some complexities for science communication for larger audiences. So that’s a second challenge. Funding for science communication though It’s improving, It is still something that deserves to be looked at. We believe the new science technology policy is forward-looking and it’ll expand funding towards science communication. But I think that would be future area. I believe that the IndiaBioscience team is doing some fantastic work in science, communication, and upskilling. And I think It is through the formation of organizations, such as yours, that overall across India, there’ll be a greater focus and emphasis on research as a culture and on better science communication.

[segue music]

[26:41] — Shantala Hari Dass

Abhishek, before I let you go, I have to ask you something that’s been on my mind. Your company has such a fun and unique name. There must be some story or anecdote behind this.

[26:55] — Abhishek Goel

When we thought of the name Cactus, we had heard of stories where companies go abroad, and what they decide to name the company doesn’t necessarily mean the right thing in the culture that they operating. So we decided to quick check in Japan because that was the first market we were operating in. And what we learned was a small potted Cactus plant is often given as a simple gift to someone because it’s low maintenance. Otherwise, If you give someone a plant, you’re giving them a big responsibility. We liked that thought. So it’s called Saboten no hachi’. Saboten is Cactus, hachi is a pot, saboten no hachi- small pot of Cactus. So that was from a Japan perspective. And then we looked deeper into India and we realized that in the desert, so cactus seems prickly and horny, and just seems like a plant that doesn’t do much, but actually it is quite an amazing plant. In the desert, It provides water to the travelers because you cut open a Cactus leaf and the liquid there is very, very refreshing. So that was the second reason that we liked. The third was Cactus seems very, very hard on the outside, but is extremely soft on the inside. So we felt that, you know, that’s the kind of organization we want to be. We want to be long, enduring, and sustaining. It just survives without needing to be handled. And it’s soft on the inside. So our culture is extremely soft. It’s extremely warm. It’s extremely welcoming.

[segue music]

[28:18] — Shantala Hari Dass

Finally, to wrap up this conversation, what are your thoughts or advice on achieving longevity for your organization?

[28:27] — Abhishek Goel

So we’ve always been forward-looking. So even back in 2003, I remember ours had a wall, which we filled up with chart papers and we were answering questions about the future vision of the company. So back in 2003, we worked on that and there were various questions there. One of the questions was that, uh, what are the risks for your business? We mentioned that an earthquake in Japan, because at that time we were only working in Japan. Earthquakes in Japan may be a risk amongst other things. And then we realize that, okay, we should be expanding beyond Japan. So we’ve always been looking forward. So as of today, the plan for longevity for the organization is looking forward, looking forward to see the things that are broken in academia and what is the role a company like us can play in helping fix those. And I’ve spoken about some of those things. The other way we are working on longevity is to have leadership that is able to take the organization forward. So all of our leaders, folks who are extremely passionate about academia, about research, anyone, almost anyone you talk to at Cactus will speak with the same passion for the researcher and we believe that’s extremely important in helping single-minded focus towards solving a problem that’s large.

Finally, I would say, probably the culture of the organization. We were very clear, Anurag and I were very clear that we wanted to work in a place where we enjoy coming to work, where we enjoy working. I think that has been the start point of the culture through the last two decades. All the folks who’ve come have contributed positively to that culture. Of what is really an empowering place to work at. And I believe that if you’re doing these three things well, that is an eye on the future, what are the challenges that are going to emerge in the future that exist today and how we work towards fixing that, the leadership, teams that you have, many of them are homegrown, many of them are from outside. And finally, the culture that you have that allows people to perform to their fullest potential. So these are three things that we believe will help in longevity

[segue music]

[30:40] — Shantala Hari Dass.

Thank you, Abhishek for joining us today in this episode of In Conversation with a Mentor’. We really appreciate that you took time out from your busy schedule to talk to us about your career journey. You have an incredible career path, which I’m sure will inspire many in the community who are looking to start something independent, be it a lab, be it a company, be it a project. We also appreciate the honesty and clarity with which you have spoken about your journey. Many will find your story relatable and useful. Once again, thank you very much for joining us. 

Thank you all for listening to IndiaBiospeaks In Conversation with a Mentor’.

We look forward to receiving your comments and feedback at indiabiospeaks@​indiabioscience.​org. Until next time, keep listening.

[31:33] — Outro

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