Photo by Maximillian Tortoriello

From Scientist to CEO

Chemistry alumnus Jianmiao Fan has found an unexpected career in business

When Jianmiao Fan (Ph.D. ’07) started at Indiana University in 2002, he was focused on getting an advanced degree in chemistry, but in his spare time, he started a side project: an open-source dictionary.

“At the beginning, it was just a hobby,” Fan says, embarked upon because he couldn’t find a service for Chinese-English translations after his own electronic dictionary had failed.

That hobby has since blossomed into a career for Fan, one perhaps that he didn’t envision when he was researching gene regulatory networks and chromosome segregation at IU. He is now the founder and CEO of dict.cn, with 30 full-time employees helping the website serve millions of unique visitors with online dictionary services.

And although his Ph.D. subject and subsequent business career may seem like disparate paths, Fan doesn’t see it that way.

“I think research and business are similar,” he says. “Every time you’re doing something new [in scientific research], you never know what will end up in front of you, but you have to learn about it and research it. In business, you have the same thing.”

Fan's company, dict.cn, has served millions of unique visitors with online translation services.

The first thing that Fan had to learn was how to turn an open-source side project into a functioning business. At the start, dict.cn grew with the help of IU students contributing vocabulary that is in common use, but not yet in formal lexicons.

“We tried to explain Chinese culture to the public, because those words are not entered into published dictionaries,” Fan says. “Lots of Chinese people contributed lots of ideas about how to improve this service.”

And after Fan graduated with his Ph.D., that free and open service continued to expand and improve.

“At the beginning, we were only thinking about how to serve our free dictionary website better,” Fan says. “We recruited 60 part-time employees and six full-time employees as editors for making content.”

But he wanted his dictionary website to be more than just that; he wanted it to be a full-fledged technology company.

In 2011, Fan secured a first round of venture capital in the amount of $2.5 million, and dict.cn evolved into a business that turns traditional content into digital mobile applications.

“We have cooperated with the top 16 traditional press groups in China,” Fan says. “We are giving them guidance on how to work with digital content and how to issue digital books.”

“I think research and business are similar ... You never know what will end up in front of you.”
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In addition to working with Chinese publishers, dict.cn has also worked with Oxford University to help them publish on digital applications in China.

“It’s a big, big achievement, this cooperation,” Fan says. “Digital is the future of our life.”

And for Fan, that life is one of continuous learning. Keeping up with the pace of the business world can be challenging, Fan says, but that punishing pace has its rewards, as well.

“We’ve served many, many people in China, and we’ve helped people improve their quality of life,” he says. “Now people can look up definitions and usage easily online. We’re always trying to help people make their lives easier.”

Jennifer Garrett

Jennifer Garrett is a freelance writer and editor living in the Boston area. With more than 15 years of experience, her work has covered a wide range of subjects, from topics in higher education to the real estate and mortgage industries. Connect with her on LinkedIn or reach her at jgarrett@gmail.com.