UW Computer Scientist Oren Etzioni on Startups, Venture Capital, and the Future of Web Search

2/18/09

Oren Etzioni, a computer science and engineering professor at the University of Washington, has certainly ventured out of the ivory tower since he first came to Seattle 18 years ago. The Israel-born computer scientist founded three startup companies out of UW: Netbot, a comparison shopping agent acquired by Excite in 1997, Clearforest, a text-miner acquired by Reuters in 2007, and Farecast, an airlines fare prediction tool acquired by Microsoft just last year.

He’s also a venture partner at Madrona Venture Group, a Seattle VC firm that funds technology startups. And he’s been involved as a consultant or advisor to numerous other startups and local businesses, most recently Eggsprout, a new Seattle startup by UW alums that combines social networking with job hunting.

I sat down with Etzioni in his office on the UW campus to chat about his philosophies on technology, startups, and investing in a tricky economy. He also showed me his latest projects—two new software technologies that search the Web in innovative ways.

PanImages, an image search tool, mines Google Images and Flickr for pictures—but the twist is, it works in hundreds of different languages (online translation tools currently don’t work for many of these). So you can not only perform image searches if you happen to speak a language that doesn’t have its own Google Images page, but you can also type in a query in one language and see its translations and corresponding images in other languages. I typed in “shoes,” and we looked at the top image hits for shoes in Italian (pointy), English (sporty), and Serbian (boots).

His other new software application, TextRunner, searches 500 million Web pages for relationships between words. You can type in a question like “What kills bacteria?”, and it finds everything in these 500 million pages that has the relationship “kill” to bacteria, returning answers ranked by the number of hits. So, antibiotics are at the top of the list with 304 hits, but down the list you find that “garlic” came back with seven hits. (More on these projects below.)

Here are edited excerpts from the rest of our conversation:

Xconomy: What do you think academia can bring to business?

Oren Etzioni: The primary mission of a professor is teaching and research, but I want to maximize my positive impact on the world, and I’ve learned over the years that there are lots of ways of doing that. I started out focused on research and writing research papers,and then found out that few people read those. Then I found that mentoring a graduate student can be a very meaningful way to have an impact. Another way to have an impact is that some research ideas have practical applicability, and the best way to get them out to the real world is through commercialization.

To give a concrete example, one of my graduate students, Erik Selberg, and I built the first meta-search engine, MetaCrawler. We were running it here and it became very popular. After a while, the head of the lab staff came to me and said, ‘This MetaCrawler thing is generating so much traffic on our network that people can’t get access to their homework, you have to get rid of it.’ So now I have this problem, I’ve created this thing that people love, so now what? The ideas were already out there in research papers, but we didn’t want to kill the application. We found that by licensing it to a startup company, we gave it some life and millions of people were using it every day at its peak. So it was very gratifying.

X: How do you decide if a research project you’re working on will have commercial applications?

OE: The first question I ask myself is, do people really badly want to use this? And I like to see evidence of that. In both the cases of MetaCrawler and Farecast, I was surprised how much … Next Page »

Rachel Tompa is a freelance journalist based in Seattle. She can be reached at rmtompa@yahoo.com. Follow @

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