Modo Labs, Open Source Spinoff from MIT, Wants to Be the JBoss of Mobile Design

Any question about the impact MIT is having on the field of mobile software design can be answered with two words: Modo Labs.

The Cambridge, MA-based startup grew out of the MIT Mobile Framework, an open source project that began in 2007 with the goal of helping developers build mobile websites for universities. The plan was specifically to focus on things that people do every day, like look up directories and campus maps on mobile devices. The commercial version of the software platform is called Kurogo, and it debuted earlier this year, in April.

The idea behind Kurogo (the name comes from the stagehands in Japanese theater) is to help colleges and other organizations get their information up and running online and make it available on any kind of device, from iPhones to iPads to feature phones—and do it all quickly using pre-built templates.

“Someone could configure this without knowing how to program at all,” says Andrew Yu, Modo Labs’ CEO.

Last month, Yu and Marshall Vale, Modo’s chief technology officer, walked me through a demo whereby the Kurogo software lets a developer grab information from different kinds of data sources—staff directories, schedules, videos, Google Maps, Facebook, Yammer, and so on. Then he or she can put these elements together to form a working site, or even a mobile app for Android or iPhone, in a few hours or less, Yu says.

So far, about 150 universities around the world have deployed Kurogo or are tinkering with it, Yu says. And lately Modo Labs has been pushing into the business sector, helping large hospitals and financial institutions set up enterprise-level intranets and mobile apps, including features like a staff directory that links to an indoor map showing where each employee sits in the building.

While plenty of companies and development shops are working on enterprise mobile apps and platforms, most of them (e.g., Blackboard Mobile, Pyxis Mobile, Apperian, Raizlabs) use proprietary code and/or are complementary to what Modo Labs offers. Modo sees open source as a key advantage, in that companies can try out the platform directly and tailor it to their needs. What’s more, many existing apps and platforms concern only specific corporate departments, such as field sales or inventory tracking, says Yu. “We’re taking the stance of something to be used for every single employee,” he says.

Lest you worry about the corporate and mobile security involved in such an undertaking, these guys have some background in that arena. Vale previously was a product manager at MIT working on Kerberos network security technology. (He was also director of software engineering at iRobot, where he worked for almost six years.) Yu, for his part, is on his third software startup and also spent about five years working at MIT as manager and architect of the mobile platform project.

Yu’s near-term goal is to “make sure we have the right people, and create a really strong culture that will be driven by excellence, respecting the open source heritage of the company,” he says.

With that in mind, Modo Labs is really looking to take a leadership position in the open source community around the Kurogo platform. According to the company, some reasonable role models for Modo Labs would include JBoss in open source middleware (bought by Red Hat for $420 million in 2006), and Acquia, around social publishing software Drupal. The startup’s ultimate goal is to “deliver great products that have worldwide reach,” Vale says.

Modo Labs currently has about 20 employees, and the company says its revenue has been growing “very rapidly in the past few months,” to the tune of 50 percent year-over-year growth. The firm raised $2 million in its first financing round last year and is in the process of raising additional funds, Vale says.

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