Bright Idea: Data Processing

| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
 
 

We give people an unfair advantage,” reads a T-shirt worn by Stephen Purpura. That’s the marketing mantra of Context Relevant, the Seattle startup Purpura launched last year. The company says it offers that edge by using machine-learning technology to quickly uncover critical relationships from among massive amounts of client data.

“Our product allows companies to explore a world of ‘what if’ scenarios that a team of statisticians would have taken months to do in the past,” Purpura explains.

A pharmaceutical company on the East Coast that was trying to decide how to price its drugs could have hired a team of data scientists to make the decision in several months. With Context Relevant, the firm’s market analysts could use an iPad, slide a few variables around and come up with an optimal price within a matter of minutes.

While Microsoft and Google can afford to hire data scientists, a lot of other companies have a tougher time, says Purpura. “We level the playing field.”

The company, which has 30 employees, expects to double its head count in 2014 and again in 2015. “After that, there could be exponential growth if we are not first acquired,” notes Purpura. He says the market potential for selling to Wall Street firms alone is $1 billion. Purpura left a career at Microsoft to pursue a doctorate in computer science so he could have a bigger impact on the world. He says in a few years, every app in the Apple store will contain some variation of Context Relevant’s technology.

Today, Context Relevant is applying its technology in industry sectors involving rapid change. For example, a sharp increase in same-day bookings has led online travel companies to use Context Relevant technology to help them quickly determine where they should book blocks of hotel rooms. Similarly, the technology can zip through default rates, housing prices and interest rates to calculate risk and help determine the value of mortgage-backed securities. Purpura even uses the technology to help him decide what wines to buy and whom to hire.

Ed Lazowska Is the 2016 Tech Impact Champion

Ed Lazowska Is the 2016 Tech Impact Champion

Lazowska, University of Washington Bill & Melinda Gates Chair in Computer Science & Engineering, will be honored at Tech Impact Awards event.
 
 

In advance of its annual Tech Impact Awards event next month, Seattle Business magazine has named Ed Lazowska its 2016 Tech Impact Champion. The award recognizes a lifetime of work building up the University of Washington’s Department of Computer Science & Engineering into one of the nation’s top 10 programs; leading the UW eScience Institute to help scholars in fields ranging from astronomy to biology take advantage of data analytics; and tirelessly promoting a vibrant regional tech industry.

Tech Impact Champions are chosen not only because of their achievements in technology, but also for championing the region’s broader tech sector. Past inductees in Seattle Business magazine’s Hall of Technology Champions, previously called Lifetime Achievement Honorees, are John McAdams, former CEO of F5 Networks; Steve Ballmer, former CEO of Microsoft; Jeremy Jaech, cofounder of Aldus and Visio and chair emeritus of the Technology Alliance, and Tom Alberg, cofounder of Madrona Venture Group.

When Lazowska arrived in Seattle 39 years ago as an assistant professor, both the University of Washington and the region were very different places. In computer science, he was the newest of only 13 faculty members. The region’s tech industry largely consisted of Boeing, Fluke and Physio-Control. Microsoft at the time was still a dozen people in Albuquerque.

Today, the UW’s Computer Science & Engineering Department rivals Stanford’s and Carnegie Mellon’s for attracting tech talent and major research — accomplishments that Lazowska helped bring about. As the university’s Bill & Melinda Gates chair, his effort to recruit leading data scientists included personally reaching out to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who provided $2 million from Amazon to endow two professorships and personally met with researchers. A decade after leading fundraising to build the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science & Engineering, he is doing so again to build a new CSE facility that will help double the center’s capacity.

“Our job,” Lazowksa asserts, “is to provide socioeconomic mobility for bright kids in this region.”

Driving opportunities through research remains his passion, as his own studies in high-performance computing, multicomputer processing and big data science have proved. An early technical adviser on the formation of Microsoft Research and a member of two national advisory committees on science and technology policy, he has promoted private and public investment in “engineering things that one day in the future will be used in game-changing products.”

Lazowska believes big data and cloud computing “lie at the heart of 21st century discovery.” He helped found and now leads the UW’s eScience Institute, a cross-campus partnership that helps scholars in fields such as astronomy, biology and sociology take advantage of data analytics to enhance their research. Given the region’s far-reaching cloud expertise, Lazowska says, “This is an area that Seattle has the potential to own.”

Lazowska’s other initiatives include promoting K-12 STEM education and promoting gender diversity in the UW program. He champions the notion that all students should study computer science to cultivate the “computational thinking” skills needed for the new century.

Lazowska marvels at the region’s transformation into a place “with distinctive and innovative activities in the broadest range of areas.” With his trademark enthusiasm for UW and the local tech industry, this celebrated educator, researcher, adviser and booster has played an important role in that transformation.

Lazowska will be inducted at the Tech Impact Awards, which will honor 19 technology leaders, at Showbox SoDo on September 21.