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, helping them analyze call data records. Since I had access to these records and back-end billing systems, it was relatively easy for me to code something so I would send a nurse 10 cents worth of airtime.” That was enough to cover the cost of the text message, plus a bit more as a reward. With that addition, nurses re-engaged with the system, and the project became a success, he says.

“It got me to start thinking about how else we can start using airtime as a mechanism to incentivize people to action—whether it’s providing data about blood banks, opinions about brands, information about local market prices,” Eagle says. “And potentially [about consumers] going out and trying something new.”

That was the genesis of Txteagle, which started in 2008 and was incorporated in 2009 with some seed financing. Last March, the company announced its Series A round, $8.5 million, led by Spark Capital. (Contrary to most entrepreneurs, Eagle says raising VC money at the beginning of this year wasn’t difficult. But the company had already done several years of legwork.)

Jana now has 13 full-time employees, and a total team of around 20, counting contractors. As of late summer, Eagle said he was looking to build out the company’s sales, marketing, and business development teams, and getting ready to open local offices around the world, starting most likely with Singapore. The startup already has a small San Francisco office as well. “We’ve been focused on building product—getting this thing out the door, getting it bullet-proof, making sure that it can scale to a huge number of people,” he says.

One recent project at the company is called “Ask the World.” Its goal is mostly to demonstrate Jana’s capabilities and get word out about the startup, Eagle says. The idea is to use Jana’s technology to survey residents in dozens of developing countries—on things like, what do people in Indonesia think about hair care products or the environment? What are rural Chinese women’s attitudes towards whiskey? What are the commuting patterns of people in Bolivia? What are people’s attitudes about the West, and what are their preferences about local brands vs. global brands? These are a few examples of what Jana’s platform could reveal, Eagle says.

But how could all of this really change the world in a business sense? Well, it’s true that Jana has access to billions of mobile subscribers—not to mention an impressive number of partnerships with mobile operators hailing from Brazil to Bangladesh, Uganda to Uruguay, and Venezuela to Vietnam. Yet, Eagle says, “Our core asset isn’t the relationships with the operators, it’s not even really the technology—we’ve got a bunch of IP around it—but the core asset really for us is the people. Instead of putting more money in the pockets of people who own billboards, [let’s] put that money directly into the pockets of the consumer. That’s our plan for being transformative.”

He’s talking about billboards and advertising because that’s where the money to compensate consumers will come from—at least that’s the plan. “It’s naïve to think that that money’s coming from research,” Eagle says. “Research in these emerging markets is a reasonable business—and it’s a business that will be profitable—but if we want to give 2 billion people a raise, we need to think about where that money’s coming from.”

Not surprisingly, Eagle points out that global advertising has “massive inefficiencies.” He asserts that the developing world spends close to $200 billion a year on mainstream mass media: things like billboards, radio ads, and TV ads. “But the people who are actually being exposed to it, far fewer are prospective consumers,” he says. “It’s not like these global brands are unaware of the benefits of targeted marketing, but there’s just no way to go out and identify an individual, because the data about these people doesn’t exist.”

Which brings us back to what Jana is trying to provide. Of course, it will face obstacles, especially as a young startup, in trying to make big changes across the developing world. Eagle admits that “the biggest challenge is our location—the liability of being based in Boston or San Francisco when at the end of the day, the market is in India or Brazil.” But that’s where having local offices around the world will come into play.

Lastly, Eagle hinted at a possible future direction for his company: applying its technology to mobile commerce. “Coupons work in a place like Boston because we’ve got barcode scanners,” he says. “But in rural India, how are you going to redeem the coupon? I think we have something that is fundamentally different. While a lot of people have tried different mechanisms for couponing, what makes us fairly unique is our redemption strategy.”

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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