Locu, the data-focused startup launched out of Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s lab at MIT to provide structure to the world’s information, has just announced a $4 million Series A round led by General Catalyst Partners. Also participating in the round were Chris Sacca’s Lowercase Capital, Lightbank and SV Angel, as well as Locu’s existing angel investors, Naval Ravikant, Babak Nivi, Quotidian Ventures, and Matt Ocko of Data Collective.
The new round follows Locu’s raise of over $600,000 in seed funding back in September 2011.
If you haven’t heard much about Locu yet, you wouldn’t be alone. Co-founder Rene Reinsberg says the company has been “flying under the radar” and has just been focusing on building their product.
That product is technology to structure the world’s information – a refrain that sounds a lot like a follow-on to Google’s goal of organizing the world’s information. It’s the next logical step.
Explains Reinsberg of what his company does, “if you look at the ways people are currently making sense of unstructured information, it’s often an approach that’s based on building crawlers and maybe some machine learning techniques – that works well if the data is out there in an already semi-structured format,” says Reinsberg. “But oftentimes, you come across really messy, distributed data sets for which automation or any machine-based approach doesn’t work, so the only way you can really tackle it is manual labor and the brute force approach.”
“So what we’ve built,” says Reinsberg, “is a system that leverages both the machine learning side and crowdworkers.”
But Locu’s crowdworkers are not Amazon Mechanical Turk users…they’re skilled, technical types who are trained (for around two hours) in how to use Locu’s special markup language to map data to the schema. Before they’re set loose on the job, they’re even quizzed first to ensure they’ve understood the system properly.
Their job, then, is to clean up, correct, tweak and otherwise adjust the data the machine-learning side of the system hasn’t managed to translate 100% correctly. Locu has, to date, trained thousands of these workers, but only a couple hundred or so are actively working to make sense of the data at any given time.
For now, the first vertical Locu has been attacking with its proprietary technology is local business information, and specifically, restaurant menu data – something that Reinsberg says is “still a really big pain” for the industry.
Locu already has some early customers and traction, but Reinsberg can’t disclose who it’s working with right now. The customers are really big companies, which you would have heard of, he says, but Locu is also working with a few early stage startups as well.
Going forward, the startup will use its system to build up a database of other non-restaurant business data, like the price lists at personal services businesses (spas, hair salons, etc.), for example. But further down the road, the technology could be used to provide structure to other data sets, like patents or healthcare. Locu will also look into allowing enterprise to use its technology to structure any data they would have a need for, whether internally or externally sourced.
The timeliness of the system is ideal for the smartphone age, Reinsberg believes. “We think the platform that we’ve built is so important is because more applications rely on structured data,” says Reinsberg. “Search is moving towards more towards structured data. You look at things like Siri and on the backend, Wolfram Alpha…and you can see how there’s much more emphasis going forward on having structured data in a variety of different verticals,” he says. “Local for us was an obvious one because of the rise of smartphones. People want to have a lot more actionable data at their fingertips and in the apps that they’re using,” he adds.
Locu, which currently houses its team of thirteen in Cambridge, is now opening an office in San Francisco, and will be using the new funding for product development and hiring.