Hack/Reduce to Open Thursday as Lynch Fires Back at Big Data “Knuckleheads”
If anyone likes a good fight, it’s Chris Lynch. The former CEO of Vertica Systems (now part of Hewlett-Packard) and current partner with Atlas Venture wears his emotions on his sleeve. And when it comes to big data, he’s dead serious.
“I think this can be transformational for our community,” he says. “But we have to deliver the goods.”
Lynch is talking specifically about hack/reduce, the big-data workspace in Cambridge, MA, that’s been a long time in the making. Since the spring, Lynch has been overseeing the nonprofit project along with Fred Lalonde, the CEO of online travel startup Hopper.
The idea is to provide a centralized gathering place for entrepreneurs and developers to get access to large-scale computing resources and mentorship for projects that involve crunching huge datasets, gleaning insights from analytics, and developing data-related tools across different industries.
Hack/reduce, located in the historic Kendall Boiler and Tank building on Third and Binney (near Kendall Square), is set to open officially this Thursday with a tech-party gala expected to draw 300 people, including Gov. Deval Patrick, who will say a few words about the state’s big-data initiative.
The event hasn’t been without controversy, though. Abby Fichtner, the former Microsoft startup evangelist who joined as hack/reduce’s executive director in August, left the organization last week. The timing of the move—right before the space’s grand opening—has raised questions about what happened. From what I can tell, it just wasn’t a good fit for everyone involved. On her personal blog, Fichtner wrote, “In the end, it seems we had different visions for what the space will become” and how “to bring in the community.”
“We wish her the best, and we don’t comment on personnel,” was all Lynch would say on the record. He added that hack/reduce has identified several potential candidates to replace Fichtner.
I stopped by this week to take a look at the renovated space. It was still a work in progress when I snapped these pictures (below), but it’s safe to say it’ll be spiffed up in time for Thursday evening. A couple of big-data startups have already moved in and are using hack/reduce as office space: Sqrrl and Diffeo.
Hack/reduce has raised more than $850,000 from venture firms, tech companies including Dell, IBM, EMC, Google, and Amazon, and the state, Lynch says. In terms of projects to be pursued, he says they’re receiving “50 applications a week from really interesting people.”
I took the opportunity to get Lynch’s take on the skepticism that some techies are showing toward big data as a meaningful trend. Not surprisingly, there has been a bit of a backlash against the “big data” buzzword as being marketing hype mixed with investor hot air. Last month, noted tech entrepreneur and VC Brad Feld went so far as to call big data “bullshit” and to suggest that it won’t spur a Boston tech renaissance by itself. (He wasn’t alone in voicing the latter opinion; for example, Hardi Meybaum of Web startup GrabCAD said something similar, though perhaps for different reasons.)
“Feld is wrong,” Lynch says. “A hundred funded startups chasing a $100 billion market opportunity can’t be wrong. In the last three years, there’s been $5 billion of acquisitions to purchase big-data companies [in the Boston area]. It’s also the driving force behind a next generation of infrastructure to support this data tsunami at the network, storage, and compute layers.”
Big data will “transform Boston,” Lynch insists. The field “plays into the sweet spot of the Boston tech community,” he says, which values “infrastructure instead of consumer and social networking.”
I could feel Lynch’s blood pressure rising as I pointed out various comments I’ve heard in the tech community that Boston won’t win in big data.
“We’ve seen the enemy and it’s that knucklehead, it’s the person conceding defeat,” Lynch says. That person deserves “an atomic knee drop,” he says (pro wrestling fan?), adding that the reason the Boston area hasn’t owned the last couple of tech revolutions—the PC, the Internet—is precisely “that kind of thinking.”
“This is a jump ball. We can own it if we choose to own it,” he says. “We have the talent, the universities, the venture capital, the angel investors, the presence of vendors. Amazon moved in, Oracle’s here, Google’s here.”
Now it’s up to the community to do the hard work and get it done, he says. “It’s Darwinism. How do you keep the circle of tech life going? Companies are born, they grow, they get consumed or they seed five of their own, and they die.”