Entrepreneur carries on even when it's complicated
While some of his colleagues swooned over big data, Andrew Hacker plugged away at making data smarter.
He earned a patent in late 2016 for his efforts and is hoping to end this year with a smart-data product that can be sold by his Harrisburg-based startup company, MistIQ Technologies Inc., one of many tech companies that have gravitated to the capital city over the last few years.
Creating smart data is a highly technical endeavor: Hacker's patent applies to the way in which the data is structured. But it's something that Hacker believes holds great promise for fields like health care, urban planning and industrial controls, among others.
And while the concept can be hard to explain to potential investors and customers, he has stuck with it, having learned from previous ventures to have faith in his vision.
He also has gotten better at articulating the idea over the last four years that he has been developing it.
"As time went on and I spoke to more people, I got better at not only understanding what it was, so to speak, but what its applications were," said Hacker, a former IT official with the state. "It was sort of a snowball effect."
His company essentially injects data files with a smidgen of intelligence, basically instructions that allow them to make limited decisions on their own. Traditional data files must wait for an operating system, like Windows 10, to tell them what to do.
A typical picture file, for instance, does nothing until an operating system asks to show it or crop it. But armed with a little bit of brainpower, smart data files can talk to others about what they are seeing, act and even learn. In addition, they can use what they know to restrict access to the information they carry.
During a recent interview at his company's office in downtown Harrisburg, Hacker cited a couple examples to bring the high-flying concept down to earth.
First, he described a typical factory with connected machines. Multiple sensors feed information to a central control system, which collects the data and processes it.
Say one sensor showed that a motor in the factory was about to fail. The data warning of a problem would have to flow to the central control system, which would then have to read it before deciding whether to shut off the motor. And then a signal would have to travel back to the motor.
A sensor producing smart data could decide on its own to shut off the motor, saving precious seconds and sparing costly equipment – not to mention people – from unnecessary damage.
In health care, a smart medical record could hold all the information about a patient but restrict access to it based on who's asking for it, Hacker said. A doctor would enjoy a different level of access to the record than would a researcher or an insurance carrier.
"That’s a holy grail of cyber security, being able to secure individual bits of data," said Hacker, the cyber security expert in residence at Harrisburg University of Science & Technology, where he also teaches.
It can otherwise be a clunky process to split up records depending on who needs to look at them, Hacker said. "We do individual encryption on each piece of data."
The challenge, as with any new business idea, is to find people willing to invest in it and pay for it.
MistIQ operates out of an office on the third floor of the Blackberry Technology Center, a small renovated building tucked in an alley in the capital city’s downtown. Hacker's partners include Teri Judge, the company’s COO; Phil Grim, its chief technology officer; and Andrew Weiss, chief legal counsel, who has helped navigate the patent process.
Hacker estimates he has invested $50,000 of his own money in the venture, and benefited from a $25,000 investment from Harrisburg University. The school also has been a source of interns.
MistIQ is hoping to raise up to $1.5 million in venture capital this year to get a product ready for market, Hacker said. The funding would allow the company to hire its two lead developers on a full-time basis.
While others are working on similar technology, there is likely to be a market waiting for whatever comes out of the pipeline, observers said.
"It comes down to, of course, how it’s presented and how it’s packaged," said Hassan Naqvi, an associate director at Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures, an outfit in Baltimore that helps faculty at Johns Hopkins University translate their ideas into marketable products and services. "And at this stage, your guess is as good as mine what the market will actually want or what will appeal to it."
Naqvi, who had been asked to assess Hacker’s work by a counterpart at Harrisburg University, saw the potential for smart data to pull useful information more quickly from heaps of big data. Smart data files can, in essence, crawl through big-data files and plant flags when they find something interesting.
"That’s something very appealing from a health care IT perspective," said Naqvi, who turned to a non-health care example to explain how that might work: the announcement by Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz that he is stepping down to focus on developing a chain of high-end coffee shops where the average cup of Joe costs $12.
How would you mine existing data, from Google searches to Facebook posts, to determine where those shops should go? The short answer is that it is not easy, but smart data would be better able to distinguish the difference, for example, between $12 and 12 ounces, cutting more easily through the cacophony of information.
"Something that simple in all the noise that we go through, to be able to filter that is pretty valuable" Naqvi said.
A capital idea
MistIQ is among a number of tech companies toiling away in downtown Harrisburg. The growing cluster is no doubt one of the reasons economic-development officials are turning to the capital city for a new startup incubator to replace the Murata Business Center in Carlisle.
It makes sense to go where the companies already are. But it also is an opportunity to design something for today’s startup, rather than the startup of the late 1990s, back when Murata first opened.
Entrepreneurs today need more than a phone and a desk and some company while they chase their dreams. They need help targeting markets and an easier way to find investors.
We recently wrote about one newfangled center in Philadelphia, the Pennovation Center. It'll take time to develop something similar in Central Pennsylvania, but it would be time well spent.