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Cambridge Semantics, Looking to Put Microsoft Excel “On Steroids,” Brings Intelligent Data Sorting to Non-Techies

Xconomy Boston — 

Semantic technology—a broad term in the software industry for adding meaning to pieces of information so they can more efficiently interact with each other—is seen as a useful vehicle for helping businesses sort through data relevant to their everyday operations. The problem is, IT guys are typically those who have the most access to and understanding of the technology, not the people who need the information the fastest, for everything from putting together budgets to tracking clinical trial data.

That doesn’t have to be the case, though, according to Cambridge Semantics. The Boston-based startup (yes, a location misnomer) is making semantic middleware that puts all the semantic technology on the back end for business users, and helps them benefit from the functionality without the technical know-how. The company’s “Anzo” software suite tries to add meaning and power to the applications that the vast majority of business people use to find and organize information—Microsoft Excel and Web browsers. “The interface that the user is used to gets put on steroids,” says co-founder and chief technology officer Sean Martin.

The company was founded by several veterans of IBM’s Advanced Internet Technology Team, which spun out products like open-source enterprise semantic middleware, and servers that powered the online scoreboard systems for events like Wimbledon and the Olympics, Martin says. Most of them worked in Big Blue’s office in Cambridge, where the startup originally planned to be located, hence the name. But it turns out downtown Boston was more convenient for their commutes.

The main aim of Cambridge Semantics’ software is to convert the ad hoc process of gathering and organizing data into one that is highly automated. And it allows users outside of a company’s IT department to do this in a few minutes—rather than waiting for the months it would take IT to build an engine that does the same thing, says Martin.

Take the process of forecasting a total budget for 100 or so different departments. Typically, those with this daunting task create a template in Excel and e-mail it out for the relevant departments to fill out and send back, Martin says. The person in charge of gathering the data has to merge the dozens of different replies, either by copying and pasting or re-entering the numbers, with the risk of introducing errors in the process. With the Anzo software, the system instead accesses and aggregates the relevant data automatically from the numerous Excel spreadsheets. As long as a user has permission to access the information he or she needs, the system can combine and link data from multiple Excel documents and other data sources. The server can also store the sorted data apart from the spreadsheet and interface with the Web. (For a demo on that, click here.)

With Anzo, users tag their data the way they would describe it in plain speech, and the software works on the back end to relate different pieces of information together. This streamlining prevents users from having to build the data relationships on their own, and enables multiple colleagues to collaborate smoothly across the same set of data. “You describe it,” Martin says. “Our system takes care of the rest. It turns it into how you think about your data.”

Cambridge Semantics’ big customer targets have been companies in the energy, financial services, and life sciences sectors. Its technology is especially relevant in industries where auditing is required, as the software keeps track of what users contributed to the data set and changed, and when. (You just have to hover over a cell to glean this information from the system.)

In addition to streamlining things like budget forecasting, the Anzo system can also manage data for life sciences companies, such as the results of a clinical trial, or the test data that goes into building a medical device, Martin says. It can help make sense of disparate information across an industry, like the oil sector, where Martin says more than half of the information is stored in Excel spreadsheets. Cambridge Semantics’ technology also powers the Book of Odds, a startup Wade wrote about that serves as an online portal for aggregating slightly obscure statistics.

Cambridge Semantics, now a 16-person company, started in 2007 and hit the market in fall 2009 with its Anzo software suite—which includes the server and interfaces for Excel and the Web. It released an updated version of the software late last month. In addition to offering greater data storage, the second-generation product enables customers to build forms online that capture data and “slice and dice” it with visuals like charts, Martin says.

More broadly, he says the company is benefitting from the growing adoption of semantic technology, both by consumer-facing users and within business operations. For example, The New York Times has reported that Best Buy is using semantic Web technology—which tags data for more relevant and interactive Internet searches—to create its online product catalogues. And technology gurus like World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee have advocated vigorously for the widespread adoption of what he calls the Semantic Web.

“The software has reached a maturity level where people can play around with it,” Martin says. “Companies like us have hidden the semantics. We’re able to sell to companies who don’t give a hoot about semantics but just want the functions.”