Thursday, April 13, 2006

April 2006 Early Indications: Four and a Half Companies to Watch

I don't have any explanation of why there seems to be such a burst of compelling stories all of a sudden, but here are some startups that look promising.

Danny Hillis is clearly one of the giants on the current computational landscape. After he founded Thinking Machines at the age of 26, the company delivered breakthrough massively parallel computers that were as visually stunning as they were powerful; Maya Lin was responsible for some of the hardware designs (which ended up featured in the Jarassic Park movie) and the NSA bought Connection Machines for cryptology. After a stint at Disney as an Imagineer, Hillis teamed up with Bran Ferren to found Applied Minds, a design studio of exceptionally smart designers, engineers, and tinkerers whose most famous product may be the Maximog, a Mercedes Unimog on steroids. Much of their work is out of public view but is said to similarly blend hardware, software, and engineering: robotics is one area of focus.

More recently, and just as quietly, Hillis co-founded Metaweb in 2005. The only public bit of information appears in a press release dated March 14 from one of the company's funding VCs, Millennium: "The 'metaweb' is a system designed to provide Internet users the ability to more efficiently locate and use information. The idea is to help people make better use of the vast information sources online." On the company's Jobs page comes a further clue: "Features of our system include database design, collaborative filtering, data visualization, recommendation systems and semantic networks."

I can come up with three further hints as to what might be involved to spend the announced $15 million: 1) The Connection Machine architecture has become the great-grandfather of Google's computing platform, as John Battelle has pointed out, so computationally searching and organizing big spaces is probably involved. 2) Hillis has been working on the problem of how to abstract the processes of the brain for over two decades; his two companies contained the words "thinking" and "minds," after all. Some sort of association, beyond indexing, feels probable. 3) I would wager that the "meta" in the name is neither accidental nor marketing-driven.

Vivid Sky
I first saw these guys at Demo, where their story caught the imagination of a wider audience via stories in USAToday and elsewhere. Most important, the firm has raised the necessary funding after the exposure. As I noted in my trip report, "Vivid Sky's story begins with a UPS-grade ruggedized handheld that you rent at the baseball stadium. From it you can watch video highlights throughout the game, order concessions, participate in online contests and surveys, order tickets, and check statistics, scores, etc. Pilots will be deployed this summer, and word is there will be football action later this year."

According to the company's website, the pilots will be literally big-league: Boston, Chicago, and Los Angeles franchises have expressed interest. Frank Gehry's firm is investigating designing the technology into the new Brooklyn Nets arena. Miami hosts the Super Bowl next year and hopes to pilot the platform with that event in mind. I'm hoping to see a game deployment this summer.

ThingMagic builds tag-agnostic RFID readers that are more like routers than radios. As the company's VP for development puts it, "The new RFID readers are designed to provide the functionality of a gateway for large networks. RF interfaces to the tags reside on one side of a reader, with a database server and a TCP/IP network interface on the other side, fully equipped to be part of a networked-distributed data aggregation and analysis system." Network-friendly functionality, including load-balancing, quality of service, and security, is now provided by the readers. These can handle active and passive tags, including those in any geography and written to any standard. The company, an MIT spinout, has raised $21 million, including $6 million from Cisco and Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte in February. It has been profitable for all of its five-plus years.

While RFID adoption has widely been reported to be slower than expected, a new generation of tags and readers, including ThingMagic's, is expected to accelerate the pace of adoption: Bear Stearns reported this week that WalMart had purchased 15,000 fixed readers from ThingMagic's competitors Alien and Impinj while Albertson's bought 5,000 fixed readers from Symbol.

This company is by no means new, but I just got wind of it lately. Like ThingMagic, Ekahau was founded in 2000 from academic roots: the team comes from the University of Helsinki's Complex Systems Computation Group. (I have no idea what the name means or connotes in whatever language, but if you want to work there, being bilingual in Finnish and English is a high priority.) The technology is quite clever, using open-standards-based wireless Ethernet to do positioning inside a wi-fi hot spot. The company also links RFID tags to 802.11 networks, allowing faster deployments because of the large installed base of wireless networks.

The combination of tag tracking and location has many applications, particularly in health and safety: where in the medical center complex is the needed asset and/or skilled person? Where is the 911 call coming from among the wireless VoIP handsets? After an industrial or mining accident, where are the workers?

This is the half-company. Like Danny Hillis, Dan Bricklin has longstanding credentials, having co-invented the spreadsheet in 1979. Beginning with Wall Street (Bricklin has a Harvard MBA), the spreadsheet transformed finance by allowing traders to calculate complex relationships on their desktop computers. Along with word processors, the application helped fuel the PC boom of the 1980s.

Now, 27 years after VisiCalc, Bricklin is working on WikiCalc, a distributed spreadsheet. Just as Google bought Writely as a probable cornerstone of a network-centric productivity suite, WikiCalc looks like an obvious Excel competitor that is built from the ground up for distributed use. John Sviokla, formerly a professor (he co-wrote the seminal Virtual Value Chain article in HBR with Jeff Rayport) and now heading up innovation at DiamondCluster, immediately saw the importance for organizational behavior:

"Spreadsheets are the key, interdependent control system used by large organizations.  GE, BP, American Express, and all large organizations have thousands and thousands of financial models in Excel, which are the basis for budgeting, and day to day management of the company.  One of the big challenges of this situation is that there is no “compare” function for spreadsheets, the way that there is for word documents.  . . . These financial models are very important to the running of large organizations, as they serve a role to both articulate what the given function or division will do (e.g. what sales are you projecting at what margins), but they are also often the control system by which senior management reviews progress, or lack of progress and uses it to guide the business on a day to day basis."

Like the Open Source Application Foundation's Chandler personal information manager (now in version .6), WikiCalc bears watching for what it could do to work, and workplaces, if its model takes hold.

A few strands connect these five efforts. Vivid Sky and Ekahau both exploit pervasive wireless. WikiCalc and Metaverse both presume a network of connected people and devices; neither is a ported desktop application. ThingMagic, Ekahau, and WikiCalc are all on the "open" end of the standards spectrum, while the SkyBox is more proprietary and Metaweb isn't saying. Metaweb and WikiCalc have legendary bloodlines, Ekahau and ThingMagic sport Ph.D.s en masse, and Vivid Sky is a scrappy startup with a particular passion and proven perfectionism that they've honed over four years of nights and weekends as the team kept their day jobs. Between rooting for some underdogs (Bricklin is a one-man show), wondering what Hillis has in store, and possibly seeing the beginnings of an RFID surge, there's a lot to watch in these five situations.