Boston’s venture capital comeback in tech
Playing host to Harvard, MIT, and over 70 technology, life sciences, and business schools, Boston, MA, has access to as much raw intellectual potential as anywhere on the planet according to bostontechguide.com.
The Greater Boston Area is the birthplace of worldwide tech and e-commerce giants, such as Wayfair, Akamai, and TripAdvisor, all of which predicted revenues in excess of $1.5bn in 2016. Additionally, tech giants Uber, Facebook, and Spotify, to name but a few, all have a major presence in the city.
Boston’s tech industry has actually struggled in the past five years, with many companies relocating assets to the booming San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley. The industry reached a five-year low at the beginning of 2013, with a gross venture capital investment of $3.4bn. However, recent disruptive developments in the life sciences and tech sectors have seen venture capital investments rise to a high of $4.7bn, according to Forbes.
While the largest growth sector in the past two years has been life sciences, technology-based ventures have also seen steady expansion. This is primarily due to an increased emphasis on Intelligent Systems (IS), from data-processing and cloud storage to robotics. Todd Hixon of Forbes claims that Boston’s startup ecosystem is uniquely qualified to profit from an investment resurgence centered around IS, citing the foundation of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1959 as the genesis of the city’s long relationship with cutting edge IS R&D.
Tech startup Nara Logics was co-founded in Cambridge, MA, in 2011 by ex-MIT research scientist Nathan Wilson. Wilson, now serving as CTO, has brought his research in brain and cognitive science to Nara, using synaptic-mapping to create software mimicking the way neural networks make connections and sort data.
The result is a computational AI, bearing similarities to the in-house software used by Google, Facebook, and other tech giants to sort data and customize user experience. Nara Logics is, in many ways, similar to other tech startups since acquired by tech giants. Where the company sets itself apart is in Wilson’s stated intent for Nara. “We’re building a pipeline, and taking insights out of the lab to intelligent, applied use cases… Nara is an AI for the people.” Nara Logics’ customer-facing model currently takes the form of Nara.me, a recommendation-generator engine for movies, restaurants and hotels. The algorithm inputs positive-negative reactions to films, cuisines, etc. and hones its recommendations accordingly. It can also create recommendations based on particular short-term preferences, adapt to location changes, and combine its suggestions (eg. Chinese food and action movies).
Nara maintains, however, that its focus is on developing more accurate information sorting in its systems, rather than growing a brand and customer base. The company’s intention is to grow its portfolio as a third-party contractor to extant companies, revealing this year that it has begun working with a major international banking house, “managing the institution’s reward points and recognizing customers’ preferences; assessing loan approvals based on detailed financial history; and analyzing user transactions for the bank in real-time to detect fraud”, according to Wired magazine. Additionally, Nara Logics has reportedly begun working with a major healthcare company and a major airline, examining past customer data in order to improve future experiences.
Nara’s AI specializes in establishing relationships between large numbers of entities (restaurants, movies, abstract concepts) and assembling them into a knowledge graph that can establish links between these. With small amounts of inputted user information, the pre-existing synaptic connections can more easily identify and build upon preferences. This sort of programming should, posits Richard Socher, CTO at MetaMind, allow for more accurate recommendations than previous methods.
“Using the Nara platform, companies can leverage relevant data across multiple lines of business, with the goal of making the customer experience simpler, cleaner and more personal," says David Herrick, who has held senior executive positions at American Express and Barclaycard, told MarketWired.
“Nara Logics builds a synaptic network of explicit and inferred connections to create an intelligence layer on top of chaotic, siloed enterprise data for real-time, context relevant recommendations.”
The ability to create specific, contextualized output from vast amounts of raw data is becoming an increasingly valuable ability. Cisco predicts that global internet traffic will increase nearly three-fold in the next five years, with total traffic in 2021 estimated to reach 3.3 zettabytes per year. Such drastic growth in the amount of readily available data suggests comparable growth in multi-market data-parsing services, with room for specialization beyond the in-house AI projects under development by tech giants.
Nara Logics, with direct access to an increasingly vibrant tech-based startup scene, could be poised to take advantage of this growth market. Providing practical decisions for businesses in the entertainment, financial, healthcare, travel, defense, and manufacturing industries, by creating recommendations based on raw mined data is predicted to be growth industry. Nara Logics obtained $13mn in startup funding and is estimated to be drawing an increasing annual revenue of $2mn.
How changing your company's software code can prevent bias
Two-third of tech professionals believe organizations aren’t doing enough to address racial inequality. After all, many companies will just hire a DEI consultant, have a few training sessions and call it a day.
Wanting to take a unique yet impactful approach to DEI, Deltek, the leading global provider of software and solutions for project-based businesses, took a look at and removed all exclusive terminology in their software code. By removing terms such as ‘master’ and ‘blacklist’ from company coding, Deltek is working to ensure that diversity and inclusion are woven into every aspect of their organization.
Business Chief North America talks to Lisa Roberts, Senior Director of HR and Leader of Diversity & Inclusion at Deltek to find out more.
Why should businesses today care about removing company bias within their software code?
We know that words can have a profound impact on people and leave a lasting impression. Many of the words that have been used in a technology environment were created many years ago, and today those words can be harmful to our customers and employees. Businesses should use words that will leave a positive impact and help create a more inclusive culture in their organization
What impact can exclusive terms have on employees?
Exclusive terms can have a significant impact on employees. It starts with the words we use in our job postings to describe the responsibilities in the position and of course, we also see this in our software code and other areas of the business. Exclusive terminology can be hurtful, and even make employees feel unwelcome. That can impact a person’s desire to join the team, stay at a company, or ultimately decide to leave. All of these critical actions impact the bottom line to the organization.
Please explain how Deltek has removed bias terminology from its software code
Deltek’s engineering team has removed biased terminology from our products, as well as from our documentation. The terms we focused on first that were easy to identify include blacklist, whitelist, and master/slave relationships in data architecture. We have also made some progress in removing gendered language, such as changing he and she to they in some documentation, as well as heteronormative language. We see this most commonly in pick lists that ask to identify someone as your husband or wife. The work is not done, but we are proud of how far we’ve come with this exercise!
What steps is Deltek taking to ensure biased terminology doesn’t end up in its code in the future?
What we are doing at Deltek, and what other organizations can do, is to put accountability on employees to recognize when this is happening – if you see something, say something! We also listen to feedback our customers give us and have heard their feedback on this topic. Those are both very reactive things of course, but we are also proactive. We have created guidance that identifies words that are more inclusive and also just good practice for communicating in a way that includes and respects others.
What advice would you give to other HR leaders who are looking to enhance DEI efforts within company technology?
My simple advice is to start with what makes sense to your organization and culture. Doing nothing is worse than doing something. And one of the best places to start is by acknowledging this is not just an HR initiative. Every employee owns the success of D&I efforts, and employees want to help the organization be better. For example, removing bias terminology was an action initiated by our Engineering and Product Strategy teams at Deltek, not HR. You can solicit the voices of employees by asking for feedback in engagement surveys, focus groups, and town halls. We hear great recommendations from employees and take those opportunities to improve.