In Search of Names, Tech Startups Look to Galaxies Far, Far Away

Xconomy Boston — 

All-seeing orbs, a distant planet and source of a life-giving drug, interstellar faster-than-light space travel, a carbon-freezing technique used to lock away enemies.

The science fiction and fantasy creations—carbonite, palantir, Arrakis, warp drive—evoke the sort of futuristic vision that many startups dream to make a reality, or at least plumb for inspiration (and marketing).

In a teeming startup world with more and more new companies and fewer and fewer un-trademarked ideas, some founders wracking their brains for the right company name have chosen to drop a space between words, make a new riff on spelling, or eliminate vowels.

Naming consultants help companies focus in on a clever unique name, and there even are artificial-intelligence-powered online name generators that produce potential monikers. (A quick inquiry at one such site Namelix elicited a slew of names for a technology and innovation journalism site, including TechTrout, Technolof, Scip, and Erism.)

Others turned to fantasy or sci-fi—even unexpectedly, like the Carbonite co-founders David Friend and Jeff Flowers.

“We were looking for a name that connoted strength, solid, durable,” Friend says, remembering the events preceding the 2005 founding of his and Flowers’s online data backup and security company. “After a month of trying every conceivable kind of mashup name and everything else, one night Jeff and I were watching Star Wars, and there was Han Solo encased in carbonite. Jeff said, ‘Carbonite.’”

For those uninitiated to the “Star Wars” universe, the merciless villain Darth Vader used the carbon-freezing technique on galactic smuggler Solo.

Friend says he bought the Carbonite web domain from a consulting firm for less than $20,000 and expected to have to wade through a mess of trademark issues with Star Wars-creator George Lucas’s Lucasfilm company. Friend says he wrote to LucasArts about his startup’s name and made an offer to buy the studio prop of Solo encased in carbonite.

The company wrote back, according to Friend: “The prop is in George Lucas’s living room and he is not interested in selling it.”

Turns out, the name ended up being an un-licensed geology term. “It would be like trademarking ‘red’; you just can’t do it,” Friend says.

Friend and Flowers’ new cloud data-storage company is called Wasabi Technologies. Friend says he has learned a few rules about naming companies: “It’s got to be memorable. You have to be able to spell it when you hear it, and it shouldn’t mean something horrible in a foreign language.”

It was three years ago that Jennifer Petter tossed out an obscure name for an RNA therapy startup.

“I was thinking about another book, for reasons I don’t remember, and I said, ‘How about Arrakis?’” Petter says, referencing the name of the desert planet in the popular sci-fi series Dune that she first read in ninth grade. Arrakis—a wasteland planet—is discovered to be the universe’s only source of “spice,” a valuable psychotropic drug that allows people to see across time and space.

The name sunk in over time. The planet—which is also inhabited by deadly, giant sand worms, so it was initially seen as valueless—is discovered to be an incomparably valued resource. Petter’s Arrakis Therapeutics, meanwhile, is working with small molecules—the stuff of typical chemical-based drugs—to block functions of RNA that cause disease.

“Like the planet Arrakis, large parts of the transcriptome were once believed to be an empty, featureless desert with nothing of value,” says Daniel Koerwer, Arrakis chief business officer. “However, the current inhabitants of Arrakis Therapeutics believe they are standing atop a resource of incalculable value and that ingenuity and diligence will convert that resource into a whole new field of valuable medicines.”

Petter says people’s reactions to the Waltham, MA-based company’s name fall in three categories: “The largest is 50 percent just don’t know what it means. Thirty percent or so think they kind of know but don’t make a follow-up question. Twenty percent of the people, they are actually looking for an opportunity to ask pretty geeky questions.”

“It’s fun, but it’s not an essential part of our branding,” Petter adds.

One could be forgiven for believing that the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s company Vulcan is also a “Star Trek” reference. The company, which runs Allen’s Seattle investments, a real estate portfolio, and research institutes, says that while it is flattered to be “compared to the likes of the mind-melding Vulcans, our founders actually had something else in mind.”

“Vulcan was the Roman god of fire,” the company says on its website. “Tossed from the heavens as a child, he grew up as a strong-willed outsider and free thinker, indifferent to the whims of the gods. This independence fueled his approach as a smith and craftsman, helping him forge works that no one else thought were possible.”

Entrepreneur Peter Thiel has made a practice of reaching into one particular fantasy universe for company names. His California-based data mining-company Palantir Technologies is named after the all-seeing orbs in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books. Add to that: Rivendell One (Rivendell is the Elven realm in Tolkien’s Middle-earth), Lembas (an Elven bread); Valar Ventures (angelic gods); and Mithril Capital Management (a fictional metal). Palantir, in the news recently for ties to the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal, did not respond to a request for comment.

Warp Drive Bio, the Cambridge, MA-based company behind a “genomic search engine,” references a faster-than-light method of space propulsion in the Star Trek franchise. The company is in the process of being bought by Revolution Medicines, and its founders declined to comment on the name’s origin.