Machine-learning startup Whetlab acquired by Twitter

Company was cofounded by Harvard computer scientists

Ryan P. Adams is Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (Photo by Eliza Grinnell/Harvard Paulson School)

Whetlab, a machine-learning enterprise cofounded by Harvard computer scientists only 15 months ago, announced today that it has agreed to be acquired by Twitter.

Whetlab’s technology helps automate data analysis and was spearheaded by Ryan P. Adams, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), with postdoctoral researcher Jasper Snoek at SEAS, graduate student Alex Wiltschko at Harvard Medical School, and collaborators at the University of Toronto and the Université de Sherbrooke in Canada.

The team’s innovation is a tool that helps businesses detect patterns in massive data sets. Aiming to reduce reliance on Ph.D.-level expertise to configure sophisticated algorithms, their software automatically asks a few key questions and handles the mathematics behind the scenes. The researchers suggest that a good software engineer using their tool could outperform machine-learning experts on challenging problems like visual object recognition, speech processing, or computational biology.

“The best tools and products are invented when you solve a problem that you have in your own work, because even though you think your problems are special, they’re sometimes very common,” said Adams, whose research was exploring neural networks when the idea originated. “We ended up building this tool for ourselves and it worked surprisingly well. It caught fire in a way we didn’t expect.”

Harvard’s Office of Technology Development (OTD) has been working closely with Prof. Adams’ team since 2012 to help launch the company, including bringing on key advisors, connecting with the venture capital community, and protecting the researchers’ underlying intellectual property. Having executed a license to the technology, Whetlab formed in March 2014. Business development expertise within OTD enabled Prof. Adams and his collaborators to rapidly seize upon a flurry of industry investment in machine learning, culminating in today’s agreement.

“I am delighted that another of our homegrown tech startups has flown from the nest,” said Isaac T. Kohlberg, Harvard’s Senior Associate Provost and Chief Technology Development Officer. “This comes at a time of tremendous growth for computer science and engineering at Harvard, led by a group of highly entrepreneurial faculty.”

Topics: Computer Science