Moju Labs Building Smart Digital Photo Albums Using Big Data

What do you get when you add Silicon Valley mojo to Korean soju (rice liquor)?

You get Moju Labs, the latest startup from Boston-bred entrepreneur Mok Oh. The former chief scientist of PayPal and current entrepreneur-in-residence at North Bridge Venture Partners has been working on a “consumer big data” startup on the West Coast for a few months now, and he’s finally ready to name it.

Oh, who has an office at North Bridge’s facility in Palo Alto, CA, just told me a little more about Moju Labs—but not a lot. The basic idea is to create a kind of smart photo album. Oh calls it “smart ways to explore and rediscover your precious memories.”

If you’re like a lot of people these days, you take plenty of pictures with your smartphone or digital camera. You share some of them, using Facebook, Instagram, or e-mail, but most of them just sit there doing nothing, Oh says. What if you could regularly access and share the ones that are most important to you and your inner circle, in a simple and smart way?

No, he says, this isn’t yet another photo-sharing app. For starters, Oh (pictured) is going after a fairly mature demographic—families with kids, say, and adults who want to connect with long-lost relatives. “It’s not, ‘I just checked in here, I’m having a beer, come join me,’” he says. “It’s something to last forever. We’re focusing on stories where the value will increase over time.”

He’s trying to make the system proactive, too: “How do we relevantly and smartly push these stories to you?” Oh asks. You might imagine that photos of a picnic you had with another couple and their kids might pop up on your iPad a few days later when you’re e-mailing them—and they should be easy to share in that case. Or there might be a channel on grandparents’ Internet-connected TV that shows recent pictures of their grandkids.

One key is the kinds of data and algorithms that would be used. When you take a picture with your smartphone, it knows the time, location, and a fair bit of context around the picture. Combine that with facial-recognition software—tuned to a small set of close friends and family—and you can start to imagine building a pretty smart system. (This does sound a bit like ThisLife, a photo organizing and sharing startup that was acquired by Shutterfly in January. And also Flock, an app from Bump Technologies. But I’m sure there are some differences.)

Privacy is a big issue, of course. Oh says his company is taking a consumer-centric view of that. Any photo sharing will be done with explicit permission, for example. And philosophically, he says, the “sharing is not about connecting people to people, but depending on the stories, it’s connecting who the relevant characters are—who might also want to consume them.”

He adds, “Earning trust is important. This isn’t something that gets blasted everywhere. It’s not going into some timeline or feed somewhere.” So it sounds much closer to a private network than Facebook.

Speaking of which, couldn’t the social-networking giant do something like this itself, and target users’ private data as a business? “It’s a big ship,” Oh says. “It’ll have trouble turning. You need a smaller ship to navigate these waters well.”

As for other companies to take lessons from in big data and user interfaces, Oh mentions Dropbox (for data capture and syncing), Evernote (extracting value from private data), and Instagram (consumer virality).

Moju Labs currently has three people, plus advisor Frédo Durand, a computer science professor at MIT (who has worked a lot with Oh before). Collectively, they have experience in machine learning, data mining, image processing, user interfaces, and data science/analytics.

The company is building early prototype products and getting feedback. For now, Oh says, he’s busy getting ready to raise a venture round (presumably North Bridge will be involved in that if it wants to). And he’s trying to build a team that has the right culture and tech DNA.

“I think we have a much better chance of success here than anyone else in the world,” he says.

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