Report: Seattle Machine Learning Star Turi Acquired by Apple

One of Seattle’s foremost machine learning startup companies, Turi—formerly known as GraphLab and then Dato—appears to have been acquired by Apple, according to press reports.

GeekWire first reported the news, citing anonymous sources close to the deal. TechCrunch also reported the acquisition. Both quote an Apple statement indicating the tech giant has purchased the company. A search of Washington state records shows the corporate registration for Turi, Inc., expired April 30 and became inactive on Thursday.

Calls and e-mails to Turi executives and its Fremont neighborhood headquarters were not answered Friday afternoon.

With a reported sale price of around $200 million—again according to unnamed sources cited by GeekWire—the exit would appear to be a substantial win for Turi’s founders and investors. The company, co-founded in early 2013 by Carlos Guestrin, Joseph Gonzalez, Danny Bickson, Haijie Gu, and Yucheng Low, raised $6.75 million from Seattle-based Madrona Venture Group and New Enterprise Associates in May of that year.

Guestrin.

Guestrin.

In early 2015, the company announced an $18.5 million Series B funding round led by Paul Allen’s investment vehicle Vulcan Capital, and Opus Capital Ventures, along with existing investors. (Oddly, no record of that funding could be found in the Securities and Exchange Commission’s online database under any of the company’s names, nor by searching Guestrin’s name.)

The idea underpinning Turi began in the halls of Carnegie Mellon University, where Guestrin was an associate professor, five years before founding the company. He led a group working on large-scale machine learning algorithms to extract and analyze relationships between entities in multi-dimensional graph datasets. Facing limits of existing software, Guestrin’s group developed GraphLab—a name inspired by Guestrin’s Labrador retriever—to parse these modern databases.

“We threw it out into the open source community, kind of as an afterthought,” Guestrin said in a 2013 interview.

The community ran with it. GraphLab the company was formed to commercialize the technology and make it easier to use for people outside of the data science priesthood. Now its products enable companies to quickly implement predictive applications and other advanced machine learning methods for things like recommendations, churn prediction, and fraud detection. Guestrin referenced his dog again to explain the intelligent applications his company helps developers build.

A dog, Guestrin said at Madrona’s machine learning and artificial intelligence conference in Seattle this spring, “listens to commands. It observes something about the world. And, in real time, makes decisions. For example, what does he have to do to go fetch that ball? But what makes my dog really interesting is that he can learn over time how to take those actions better.”

That dog might have been a Pittsburgh, PA-based startup if not for the influence and money of one Jeff Bezos, and others in Seattle’s tech industry.

Guestrin and his spouse, Emily Fox, were recruited to the University of Washington in 2012, where they both remain Amazon Professors of Machine Learning. On short notice, Bezos ponied up $2 million to endow their professorships. Microsoft Research head Peter Lee was also instrumental in recruiting the pair to the region.

A poster of GraphLab in the New Ventures Facility.

A poster of GraphLab in the New Ventures Facility.

Turi began life in the University of Washington’s New Ventures Facility, a startup incubator now known as CoMotion Labs. In a year there, it grew there from four employees to 23, says Vikram Jandhyala, UW vice president for innovation strategy and executive director of CoMotion.

The company is not based on any UW intellectual property, and the UW has no equity position, so the acquisition won’t result in a financial return for the university. But Jandhyala was nonetheless excited to read of the acquisition, as it underscores the new emphasis at CoMotion, which is looking to help startup companies grow even if they don’t have an explicit link to the UW. In this case, of course, the on-campus incubator space made it easier for Guestrin to be both a professor and a startup CEO, and helped with access to resources, advisers, and VCs, Jandhyala says.

“It was a great story for our incubator,” he says.

It’s not immediately clear what Turi’s future holds inside of Apple, but the reports say the team is likely to remain in Seattle and bolster the company’s presence here, and its capabilities in Turi’s areas of expertise.

Benjamin Romano is editor of Xconomy Seattle. Email him at bromano [at] xconomy.com. Follow @bromano

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