Via Science Forms to Launch “Big Data” Analytics Startups

11/2/10

Entrepreneur Colin Hill has formalized his plans to create new data analytics startups with the launch of Via Science. The Cambridge, MA-based firm will serve as part holding company of Hill’s previous two companies, GNS Healthcare and Fina Technologies, and part incubator for hatching new startups, Hill says.

Via Science is the corporate vehicle that Hill and his business partners will use to commercialize so-called reverse engineering/forward simulation (REFS) technology—first invented to streamline cancer drug development—through multiple startups focused on specific industries.

The firm is evolving the strategy previously used at GNS Healthcare (formerly called Gene Network Sciences) to spin off Fina Technologies, which is applying the technology to the financial trading world. Hill, the chairman and CEO of both Via Science and GNS, says he plans to announce the launch of Via today.

Via Science aims to operate on the cutting edge of “big data” analytics, which uses supercomputers and takes the huge amounts of data at our disposal today and create predictive models for different types of businesses. GNS Healthcare, for instance,has applied this technology to identify biomarkers that can predict how patients will respond to certain rheumatoid arthritis drugs for Cambridge, MA-based biotech giant Biogen Idec (NASDAQ:BIIB)—all without touching a test tube.

Now, Hill sees opportunities to expand the reach of the technology to build predictive models for improving such business activities as supply-chain management, insurance risk assessment, and consumer marketing.

For all the automation that technology has brought into our lives, our economy is still heavily reliant on human experts to use their knowledge, experience, and perhaps intuition to analyze business problems. Such problems include when to buy or sell a particular stock or how much of a certain product to keep on a store’s shelves to meet consumer demand. To hear Hill talk, industry now has at its fingertips an enormous amount of data that his firm’s technology could put to work in order to solve business problems with increased predictability. And there are clearly more data available today, thanks to smartphones, sensors, and other digital technologies, than humans alone can analyze, he says.

“It’s not a platform to replace the role of experts and humans,” Hill says of big data analytics. “But it’s ultimately to enhance what humans can do because our brains are wired a certain way. We are finite. We cannot look at tens of thousands of variables, where there may be millions of data points per variable over the course of months and years, and really somehow assimilate that in our heads to predict how business is going to change in the next minute or the next day.”

Via Science’s technology, on the other hand, automates the generation of hypotheses and tests billions of them to generate predictive models of what causes certain things to happen. This is potentially useful in a wide variety of fields, of course, but in order to launch successful startups, Via is going to have to find the markets in which there is enough demand for its technology. GNS has found such customers as Biogen, Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ), Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), and one undisclosed healthcare payer. Fina, which raised $4.5 million in a Series A funding round last December, is on its way in the financial world. Where will the next startup focus?

Hill says he expects to launch a new startup in the next 6 months to a year that serves consumer-facing companies that manage many product transactions. Via Science plans to make money on royalties from such subsidiaries and projects with other companies that want to apply its technology for specific issues. In fact, it has already begun work with an undisclosed consumer products company to apply its analytics technology to aid in new product launches, Hill says.

Hill expects that the startups Via incubates will eventually raise capital from outside investors, as Fina did last year. We’ll see whether a new startup emerges via Via in the months to come.

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