Startup Field Rife with Watson Wanna-be’s

The widely watched battle between Jeopardy-playing supercomputer Watson and two of the game show’s human champions this week directed national attention to the otherwise relatively obscure corner of the programming world known as natural language processing.

But while the limelight was fixed mostly on Watson’s creator, IBM, it’s clear Big Blue isn’t the only one investing considerable time and expertise in the space recently.

A quick dive into the Thomson Reuters database pulled up at least a half-dozen venture-backed startups funded over the past couple of years with natural language processing figuring prominently in their business descriptions. And while no one appears to be incubating any stunts to rival the Jeapardy showdown, most are aiming to make some non-prize money selling tools for data mining, call center operations, and search.

Some of the candidates my query unveiled include:

DataPop: The Hollywood, Calif.-based company uses natural language processing and semantic technologies to analyze search queries and create ads matching user intent. Founded in 2008, the company raised $1.7 million in November, according to Thomson Reuters, from investors including Rincon Venture Partners, IA Ventures, Momentum Ventures and Accelerator Ventures.

Inform Technologies: The New York-based company develops a system that uses artificial intelligence and natural language processing to search web pages and connect them based on common topics. The company sells its applications to media companies and also runs a website, Inform.com, where visitors can search for news and other content using its technology. It raised $19 million since 2008, according to Thomson Reuters, from Spark Capital and Stephens Group.

Ramp Holdings: The Woburn, Mass.-based company operates what it calls a “content optimization platform”—essentially software incorporating natural language processing technology to process digital video, audio, text and images. By using its software, Ramp says, customers can improve search engine placement, deliver more relevant advertisements,  and tag content for distribution across multiple channels. Ramp has raised $21 million since 2007, according to Thomson Reuters, from backers including Accel Partners, Commonwealth Capital Ventures, Fairhaven Capital Partners and General Catalyst Partners.

There have been some nice exits in the space as well. For example Powerset, developer of a natural language-based search engine, sold to Microsoft in 2008 in a deal reportedly valued at $100 million. The company previously raised $13 million, according to Thomson Reuters, from backers including The Founders Fund and Foundation Capital.

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