“Whenever you say you’re developing a Search Engine people say ‘Well you’ve got Google, why are you wasting your time?’ and sometimes I wonder that myself.” Dave Patterson is in the conference room of the Technology and Engineering Innovation Centre (TEIC) at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown. He and his colleagues have developed a new Search engine, Sophia (www.sophiaSearch.com/). “Google is an Internet search engine; it’s not designed to work behind firewalls, to find information within an organisation. The limitations behind conventional Search are what motivated us to try to improve Search in some way.”
Sophia retrieves information from unstructured content – from Word, PDF, Text, HTML files – as opposed to structured information in a database which has been pre-designed and organised. “It’s a massive challenge to find information people are looking for. This is the holy grail of Search; to understand the context of the User. What gives a word its context are the other words around it.” The trick, according to Dave, is to identify what the User really is looking for – to understand the context of their Search. He gives the word Java as an example. If a User is searching for “Java” they could be looking for many different things. “The User could be looking for information on an island in Indonesia, coffee or web programming. What differentiates SOPHIA from any other Search tool is its ability to understand context.
So what was the Eureka moment for Dave and his four person team? “We thought: ‘What are the linguistic principles behind communications, speech and understanding the meaning of texts?’. We looked to linguistics and we base our technology on a model of linguistics called Semiotics; it’s all about context.”
Business is a challenge for academics whose main focus is publishing research. “I was interested in technology transfer – how can we get this into the industrial base, generate income and add value to the economy. But there is no money available for that in academia.” So they turned to Invest Northern Ireland for a grant to support them proving the concept that they had developed. “The grant we got from INI helped us to bridge that gap. We thought we had something that was commercially of interest but we needed time and money to verify that.
“The customer and clients they are targeting are organisations that have knowledge workers who spend a lot of time searching for information and understanding information. It’s not just enough to find one document; they want to understand an entire topic. So we are looking at pharmaceutical companies, life-science companies, engineering companies.”
Their approach to the market is to work with partners in incubator projects. “It’s a low risk, low cost means for companies to engage with us to try out our technology.”
The next stage will be longer licences for customers under a SaaS model or OEM deals. But there have been unexpected turns even at this stage in the businesses development. “It’s very important to listen to the market.” Dave already understands that when technology goes to market, the people that adopt it might not be the expected customers. “You can’t be blinkered. A company in a sector they had never thought about – Search Engine Optimisation – was interested in SOPHIA and are engaged in one of the pilot incubators and they want to move to the next stage. We’re not interested in selling our technology directly in that sector. This is another fundamental change from my mindset initially – we are interested in licensing to them and letting them develop products on the back of our technology to take to market. They have ideas for three new products already. We didn’t have the knowledge to know it could be applied there.”
Moving from technology development to running a business has been a leap for Dave. “On the whole the perception is that the difficult bit is developing the technology. I believe that’s the easy bit; the difficult bit is making a successful business from there. I knew it was going to be difficult, I never thought it would be this difficult. As a small company you have to do everything. Accountancy wasn’t a strong point of mine nor was sales and marketing, but these are things you just have to do. You have to look at yourself honestly. There are four of us (one is based in St. Petersburg) and everybody is technical. But that’s not going to build a business. So one of the first things I tried to do was build a board and employ an experienced Sales Director.
Dave has been impressed by the generosity of the Northern Ireland business community. “Never once has somebody turned down a meeting with me to talk to me about what I’m doing, to try and help. People have been so positive. People have their own pressures and problems, yet they always seem to have time to meet. People have given my time for no other reason than to try and help. Having someone with a few years experience like that really does help in avoiding some of the more obvious pitfalls.”