With the birth of the United States and our July 4th celebration upon us, it makes me think about when NetBase was 1st founded. In fact, NetBase celebrated its tenth anniversary in June. Here’s our founding story and why we came to exist.
I was a young engineer working at Ariba in 2002, and had spent a year working on an innovative new product. But one day I got word that the project had been cancelled and all the work that my colleagues and I had done was thrown out. It was devastating—all my professional work up to that point was just discarded. I didn’t want to see that happen again because I thought it was bad for the economy and I didn’t like it personally.
So I began researching the process of innovation with the goal of understanding it better and, ideally, finding ways to improve it. I started by examining the Ariba project and came to the conclusion that it had been cancelled because the work wasn’t related to a customer need; it was just an interesting idea. That’s when it occurred to me that the same explanation applies to many failed innovation projects within corporations: They fail when people developing products or services deep within a company aren’t connected to their customers and don’t know what their needs are.
To learn more, I went to study innovation at the MIT Sloan School of Management, the top university for the science of innovation. There are actual innovation scientists there, some of whom became advisors to NetBase, like Eric von Hippel, an economist and professor.
Developing an Innovation Engine
I learned that innovation is matching an unmet need with a new technology; that is, solving an unmet need in a novel way. To innovate, you need lots of information about two things: needs and technologies. So I began to create a database of needs and technologies. I sat in cafés and restaurants, where I’d listen to conversations, overhear people describing needs, and add them to the database. I’d read the websites of different labs at MIT, learn about their technologies, and describe them in the database.
My vision was to create an innovation engine that would connect unmet needs with technologies capable of addressing them, thereby delivering one innovation after another. The vision of an innovation engine was exciting—it would crank out solutions to the world’s problems, fuel growth in the economy, create jobs, solve people’s long-standing problems and save the world. To help create the database of needs and technologies, I founded the MIT Innovation Club, which has been very successful and is still going strong today.
But even with the help of the club, I found that populating a database with a huge collection of needs and technologies was going to take a very long time. I figured there had to be a better way.
Finding A Database of Unmet Needs and Technologies
So we needed to build a vast database of needs and technologies that would fuel the innovation engine, but I didn’t see how. Then one day it hit me: A database of needs and technologies? That already exists—it’s the Web. I just needed to figure out how to use all that information for our purposes. And that’s what led to developing the technology behind NetBase. We investigated computational linguistics and machine learning in order to figure out how to analyze the Web for needs and technologies. Once we found them, we’d put them into a structured form so they could be searched, linked to each other, and used for innovation in marketing and R&D.
Finding Technology to Search the Web
How could we find needs and technologies on the Web? By developing techniques for searching online information with the goal of identifying technologies to search online information. (I know, it sounds like chasing your own tail.) This project laid the groundwork for what we were going to do as a company. Frankly, it was a perfect proof-of-concept: I wanted to develop something that was actually useful, and if I could prove that it was useful for myself, that would show it could be useful for our customers.
Incidentally, the process we went through to develop the right technology to search the web is a microcosm of innovation itself: My unmet need was how to harness the web to do business research; the technology we applied to meet that need is the NetBase platform.
We launched the company as Accelovation in 2004 to bring our innovation solution to the market. We always had the vision to broaden the applications at some point to include other types of analysis: In its expanded form, our mission was to span a company’s business functions. We started with R&D and Marketing, but knew we wanted to expand into such other functions as HR, Finance, and Legal, and to help those functions make use of the Web. We started with R&D and Marketing because that’s where innovation was happening in companies, so Accelovation made sense for that market.
By the way, most people I ran this idea by in the early days thought it was crazy. That’s the reception we got from investors. But my co-founder and I weren’t fazed by that because we were seeing customers respond to our approach. That’s what fueled our enthusiasm for pursuing something that ran counter to what the VCs thought was a good idea.
Abandoning the Concept of An Innovation Engine
Although the term innovation engine was useful to express an original, important concept for us, we dropped it fairly early on because we realized that only a small subset of business people work on innovation, including R&D scientists and engineers. Also, for people in Finance, HR, etc., we felt the notion of an innovation engine wasn’t applicable. Even in our early days, we realized staff members in those functions aren’t necessarily looking for needs or technologies, but rather for details about finance concepts or people to hire. So we dropped innovation engine as a way to encapsulate what we were offering.
Changing the Company Name
Our original company name, Accelovation, suffered the same fate, and for the same reasons. It made a lot of sense to our initial target market of R&D, but we felt it didn’t apply to the wider audience. We also understood that it didn’t accurately describe what a medical professional searching for information (also an early audience) was doing.
So we relaunched ourselves as a bigger company, NetBase, which, at that time, was all about the technology that powered our early search offerings, such as Illumin8, ConsumerBase and HealthBase. NetBase—shorthand for turning the entire InterNET into a dataBASE of solutions—works better as the name for a company whose technology applies to a range of business functions and professionals across industries and departments. NetBase’s goal is to help individuals and organizations get better business results from digital information on the Web by applying our technology that reads sentences, analyzes them, and extracts insights.
Back to the Present
So now you know our story and we’re back to the present. One last point that brings us full circle: The thing about our company that I’m most proud of is our customer focus. Proof of that focus is that the first deposit into the corporate checking account was revenue; it wasn’t a grant for doing pie-in-the sky research or venture capital to chase after the latest Internet fad. It was revenue from having delivered insights to a customer—from having used technology to meet an identified need. That distinction has set the tone for the development of the company ever since, and I hope inoculates us against the kind of disappointment I experienced in my early days at Ariba.
Thanks for reading our history. You can read about our latest product idea, LIVE Pulse, here and see just how far we’ve come.