Massachusetts’ New Big-Data Initiative to Include MIT, Intel, and HackReduce

Who will own the emerging tech-business field of “big data”? Answer: probably no one entity or geographical region. But the state of Massachusetts is putting its best foot forward this week, with an assist from Intel, MIT, and some local big-data leaders.

Wednesday afternoon, at 2 pm, Governor Deval Patrick will announce a new big-data technology and business initiative from the state. The event will take place at the Stata Center at MIT, and other speakers will include Susan Hockfield, MIT’s president; Justin Rattner, the chief technology officer of chip giant Intel; and Daniela Rus, the new director of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab.

From what I’m hearing, the initiative—which has the official (and rather techie) name of “Massachusetts Big Data Analytics”—will consist of a few main components. One is the formation of a consortium of 100-plus local companies, research groups, and other organizations working on, you guessed it, big data and analytics. Another is a new internship program intended to place some 2,000-plus students from around the world into data/analytics companies in Massachusetts. And another piece is a grant program, whereby the state will provide matching funds for research projects at universities around the state. On the corporate side, Intel is committing several million dollars—the figure I’ve heard is $13 million—presumably over a few years, to support research projects on big data and analytics at MIT, specifically.

Lastly, the state plans to contribute $50,000 over two years for HackReduce, an incubator-style hacker space near Kendall Square that will provide large-scale computing resources and mentorship for big data projects. Before you say, “Not another tech incubator,” this one is pretty different. It is a nonprofit and is open to anyone; the plan is for applicants to submit proposals for six-month projects. Something like 10 to 20 projects will be chosen for the initial group; they can be in any field, such as analysis of environmental data, city transportation flow, finance, or healthcare, medical, and genomic data. The community space is slated to open next month in a building near Kendall Square; the lease hasn’t been finalized yet.

HackReduce is spearheaded by Fred Lalonde, the founder and CEO of Hopper, an online travel and information-discovery startup based in Boston and Montreal. Lalonde is assisted by such luminaries as Chris Lynch, the former CEO of Vertica (now with Atlas Venture), and Steve Papa, the former CEO of Endeca. His advisory board includes Sam Madden, an MIT professor and database expert. It sounds like they are pretty far along in recruiting an executive director for HackReduce, who will lead the program full-time.

The project grew out of big-data “hackathons” that Lalonde has helped organize in Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, and Boston over the past year or so. The goal is to “build a permanent version of this road show,” he says, and to put “the world’s largest concentration of big data” experts and facilities in Boston, so that local developers and entrepreneurs have access to large computing clusters with which to test their code. “From that, awesome stuff will emerge,” he says.

To that end, the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke will provide some of the computational resources for HackReduce (and presumably the state’s new initiative, more broadly). The Holyoke effort, which dates back to 2009, is run in partnership with a number of universities and companies including EMC and Cisco Systems. IBM and Microsoft have also agreed to provide IT resources for HackReduce.

“You can’t do big data on a laptop,” Lalonde says. In fact, that’s one of the things that differentiates the field from other trendy buzzwords in information technology.

The broader goal here, Lynch says, is to take “data, which is the new black, and make it information, which is the new gold.” As for who will get access to potential deals and new companies in the HackReduce facility, he says, “It’s a contact sport. Let the best man, or venture firm, or vendor win.”

So far, HackReduce has garnered support from a half-dozen venture firms, each to the tune of $50,000 over two years. The participating VC firms are Atlas Venture, North Bridge Venture Partners, Bessemer Venture Partners, Bain Capital Ventures, General Catalyst Partners, and Brightspark Ventures; it was previously reported that other venture firms also had committed money, but either that was premature or some have backed out. Nevertheless, the nonprofit has secured more than $500,000 in initial funding. Its other financial supporters include IBM, Microsoft, and law firm Goodwin Procter.

The Boston area has a pretty rich history of companies in “hard tech” fields like data storage, networking, analysis, and IT infrastructure. So you’d think it should be well-positioned to become a leader in big data. “That’s got to be in the DNA of this town,” Lalonde says.

But it’s going to take a lot of work. In any case, the state’s new initiative certainly looks like an effort to ride what could be the next big tech wave. “Now Boston has at least put a shot over the bow to own big data,” Lynch says. “We’ve been able to galvanize venture, industry, government, and universities to go after this. Whether it succeeds or not, this is a pretty compelling message.”

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