Harvard Spins Off Brand Monitoring Startup Crimson Hexagon

Harvard’s Office of Technology Development has been grabbing headlines this week. On Sunday, it went public with news about a Beverly, MA-based spinoff called SiOnyx that hopes to commercialize “black silicon,” a highly light-absorbant form of the material discovered in a Harvard physics lab. And today it took the lid off Crimson Hexagon, which plans to market an online opinion-tracking system based on the work of Gary King, a professor in Harvard’s Department of Government.

Gary KingKing, a quantitatively oriented political scientist and software engineer who is also director of Harvard’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, developed an automated statistical algorithm that can sift through large bodies of text such as blog posts and extract themes and opinions in a way that is supposedly immune to the usual biases built into opinion polls and early online brand monitoring technologies. Crimson Hexagon, based in Cambridge, MA, has obtained an exclusive license from Harvard to apply the algorithm to the area of automated opinion analysis in blogs, online communities, and other social media.

Many companies already use similar systems to track the success of product launches and marketing campaigns and to identify (and respond faster to) problems such as product defects. Crimson Hexagon claims that King’s algorithm can encompass a broader swath of consumer sentiments about brands or products—or, for that matter, personalities and political candidates—and help companies to answer more specific questions. A drug company, for example, might use Crimson Hexagon’s system to find out which side effects are mentioned most often by people taking the company’s medications.

“With the Internet, information is free but meaning is expensive—or at least difficult to find given the onslaught of information available,” King said in Crimson Hexagon’s statement today. “The technology we developed was designed especially for this problem of making sense of huge quantities of expressed opinion.”

Crimson Hexagon was founded in 2007 and has been in stealth mode up to now; it’s funded by several angel investing groups including New York- and Boston-based Golden Seeds, Boston-based Beacon Angels, and East Hartford, CT-based Angel Investor Forum. King is serving as the startup’s chief scientist, and the company’s CEO is Candace Fleming, the former president of Icosystem, another Cambridge startup focused on business analytics applications of advanced math.

“While one might not associate social media and Web 2.0 technology with Harvard, this is but one example of a variety of timely research initiatives being advanced across our campus, benefiting society and researchers alike,” Isaac Kohlberg, Harvard’s chief technology development officer, said in a statement. Kohlberg is widely credited with resurrecting Harvard’s technology licensing efforts after a long spinoff draught.

Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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