AMHERST, Mass. - After more than a decade in development, DiscoverText, a cloud-based text analytic software developed by University of Massachusetts Amherst faculty member Stuart Shulman, has been purchased by Vision Critical, a Vancouver-based provider of consumer insight technologies and services.
Vision Critical officials announced the deal with Shulman’s company, Texifter, LLC, on Jan. 22. According to Shulman, DiscoverText is based on the idea of sifting huge amounts of text, such as documents, tweets and e-mails, making it easier to locate, classify and segment information using various parameters. By combining DiscoverText capabilities with its “insight communities,” Vision Critical plans to automate the organization and classification of hundreds of thousands of text records more efficiently and accurately, according to the company’s announcement.
Shulman says DiscoverText is a good fit for Vision Critical, which generates large volumes of data from panels of 5,000 to 20,000 users of different products. “That generates a lot of free text,” Shulman says. “Our software is very well suited for that kind of work.”
“Our clients engage their customers and stakeholders through insight communities to make better, faster, more customer-centered decisions,” says Scott Miller, group CEO of Vision Critical. “As we continue to marry qualitative and quantitative analysis, this new technology combines a machine learning, language agnostic, text analytics solution with our insight communities. This is a game changer for us, our partners and for our clients.”
"Stuart Shulman’s technology addresses a critical problem in today’s society, the challenge of capturing meaningful information from large amounts of textual data,” says Michael Malone, vice chancellor for research and engagement at UMass Amherst. “After working on research in this area for many years, he created Texifter LLC to further develop his novel ideas by working with users. Vision Critical’s acquisition of Texifter validates this approach and will greatly increase the impact of this innovation. We are extremely proud of Dr. Shulman and the excellent work he has done.”
Under the deal, Shulman will join Vision Critical as vice president for text analytics, and Texifter’s chief technology officer, Mark Hoy, will take on the role of senior architect of text analytics.
Shulman’s interest in analyzing massive volumes of data developed more than 12 years ago when he was teaching political science at Providence College. His previous work as an organic farmer in Oregon spurred interest in public comments solicited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture about its proposed national standards for organic agriculture.
“If you tell the government you’re doing research on data, most of the time, they’ll give it you,” says Shulman, who began searching for solutions to analyzing and managing a digital mountain of responses received by the USDA. Shulman contacted Larry Brandt at the National Science Foundation, who was at the forefront of a budding effort to develop digital government. “He wanted to bridge the gap between social scientists and computer scientists and improve the quality of the government’s interaction with the public,” says Shulman.
After receiving an initial $30,000 from NSF to focus on research on e-rulemaking, Shulman developed strong ties within the computer science community. That early work led to the development of e-rulemaking workshops in Washington, D.C., between 2001 and 2006 that attracted the participation of hundreds of officials from federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Transportation. By 2004, Shulman was at the University of Pittsburgh where his work continued.
Shulman joined the UMass Amherst political science faculty in 2008 and with lab space provided by the computer science department, carried on his research on text analytics and e-government. Over time, his research group received a total of $4 million in research funding from the NSF. In 2007, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, through NSF, provided Shulman’s research team with $250,000 to hire a programmer to build a prototype solution for de-duplicating and clustering public comments. The USFWS used the software to sort more than 660,000 public comments regarding the agency’s proposal to list polar bears as a threatened or endangered species.
By 2009, it was apparent to Shulman that his basic research needed to grow into a real-world application. “There comes a moment for technology transfer,” he says, “which many experts will tell you is the hardest part—your prototype isn’t a product—it’s a test and you’re building a product that people can use.”
The result was Texifter, LLC, a small start-up boosted by a $150,000 Small Business Innovation Research award from NSF. Shulman also credits Joseph Bohan, a local pharmaceutical company executive who is involved with entrepreneurship programs at UMass, with being an angel investor in the fledgling firm. Bohan, who has also been a mentor to Shulman, serves on Texifter’s board of directors.
With those initial investments as well as financial support from a network of family and friends, says Shulman, Texifter launched DiscoverText and attracted more than 40 customers, including Google, QVC-UK and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
For Shulman, the sale of DiscoverText is not only a validation of many years of research and hard work, it’s a tribute to everyone who backed his efforts. “A lot of key people made a leap of faith. Without them, there never would’ve been a company,” he says.
Embarking on his new post at Vision Critical, he adds, “I’m looking forward to integrating DiscoverText into the company’s operations.” Joining a firm with more than 600 employees and $80 million in sales last year will be a culture change from a small start-up and academia. “It’s brave new world,” he says, “but I’m excited about a chance to see the software reach its full potential.”