Bluefin Labs, Named After a Sushi Bar, Tracks Social Media Around “Every Show on TV”

Deb Roy doesn’t strike me as a Jersey Shore kind of guy. Yet he can tell me exactly what viewers are saying about the estimable Deena Cortese during any episode, or how many people are annoyed by Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino and are tweeting about him (no, I haven’t been—too busy getting my GTL).

I’ll spare you the sordid details, but Bluefin Labs won’t. The Cambridge, MA-based tech company, which Roy co-founded in 2008, is all about understanding social-media conversations around TV programs and ads. Not just what’s being said and the sentiment behind it—as many other companies are tracking in various fields—but also the precise demographics of who’s saying it, what else they’re saying (and watching), and how their profile and comments are correlated with other people and programs, in an aggregate sense.

Bluefin Labs has gotten its share of press for its technology approach. But the company seems to be coming into its own as a business, and it has been garnering interest from TV network executives and big brand marketers as of late. So I sat down with Roy, Bluefin’s CEO, to learn more about the company’s history and approach.

Roy is a professor on leave from the MIT Media Lab. He’s an expert in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and data mining, among other things. His company, which now has north of 30 employees, has deep computer-science research in its DNA (for better or worse). Based largely on its technology and team, it has raised more than $7 million from Redpoint Ventures, Acacia Woods Ventures, Lerer Ventures, and other investors.

My first order of business: where did the name come from? Well, the story of Bluefin Labs (not to be confused with Bluefin Robotics, another MIT startup) goes back to Roy’s research at the Media Lab, where he has been a faculty member since 2000.

As he puts it, his research program was “built on understanding the relationship between words and context.” (Roy is known for having recorded a quarter-million hours of video of his young son’s early life, in part to understand how a computer might learn human language.) Around 2007, a PhD student of Roy’s, Michael Fleischman, was working on a project to analyze video footage of baseball games and audio of announcers talking about the games—a convenient (and fun) database for associating words and context. Conceptually, the goal was to teach a machine to understand what a “fly ball” or “home run” looks like, for applications such as video search.

A program director at the National Science Foundation happened to see an article about the baseball research. He called Roy and suggested he apply for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant. Roy had no business experience—it was a “part of my brain I didn’t know existed,” he says—but he and Fleischman (who “has entrepreneurial blood running through his veins,” Roy says) wrote up a proposal. And in 2008, they were awarded a $100,000 SBIR grant. They had 48 hours to pick a name for their company, so they named it after a sushi bar in Porter Square (Blue Fin) where they had dinner. The name stuck.

Bluefin Labs started out by analyzing other types of sports programs, like football. Social media was taking off, so Roy and company ran a test with the National Football League to track what people … Next Page »

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