Jana, Formerly Txteagle, Unveils Strategy for “Giving 2 Billion People a Raise”—A Talk with CEO Nathan Eagle

10/11/11Follow @gthuang

One of the Boston area’s most intriguing tech startups—because of its global reach—has emerged from a fairly quiet period with a new name and a refined mission.

Boston- and San Francisco-based Txteagle, a mobile research and marketing startup focused on developing countries, has rebranded itself as Jana (pronounced “Jah-nuh”). The name is Sanskrit for “people,” and as co-founder and CEO Nathan Eagle explains, it highlights the focus of the young company. It also fits the aesthetic profile of what the team wanted in a name: “It’s short, has two consonants and two vowels, and is easy to recognize and spell,” he says.

Yes, Eagle is a precise kind of guy. Precisely crazy enough to think his startup can change the world by enabling companies to do market research and mobile marketing in nearly 100 developing nations (and counting) via mobile phones. All by compensating consumers for participating by rewarding them with airtime on their mobile subscriber accounts.

This is interesting because, first of all, most brands and ad agencies don’t have good access to detailed data about consumers in emerging economies. “We want to generate data that simply doesn’t exist,” Eagle says. And, second, Jana has a way of reaching a lot of people with what sounds like a pretty compelling offer. “As far as I know, there’s no other company on Earth that has the capability to instantly compensate 2 billion people,” he says.

Where did this company come from? Ten years ago, Eagle (see photo, below) was a graduate student in the wearable computing group at the MIT Media Lab. He convinced his advisor to let him program a Nokia phone to collect data about his behavior and surroundings, instead of strapping on bulky equipment like other students. “So I wouldn’t have to dress up as a computer for the rest of my graduate career,” he quips. “I’ve been hacking on phones ever since.”

He finished his PhD in 2005, and wanted to make an impact on people’s lives through mobile devices. Mobile phone adoption was taking off fast in Africa, so Eagle took a faculty position at MIT but arranged to live in Kenya, where he taught mobile-app development at the University of Nairobi.

That led to a number of interesting projects. One was an app to enable rural nurses to send text messages about the local blood supply levels in their hospitals, so that centralized blood banks could see where blood was needed. (Previously this was done by having people drive from hospital to hospital, with long delays in information flow.) The first week of the release went well, but in the second week, about half the nurses stopped texting. By the end of the month, all the texting had stopped.

“It failed simply because of lack of insight on my part,” Eagle says. “We were asking these rural nurses to send a text message every day with the data. That was like asking them to take a pay cut. The price of a text message was a surprising fraction of their day’s wage.”

So he went back to the drawing board. Eagle’s work was around mobile phones, but it was also around “big data,” he says. “I was working with dozens of mobile operators in East Africa, … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com or call him at 617-252-7323. Follow @gthuang

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