Dr. Catherine Havasi – From the MIT Media Lab to Co-Founder & CEO

Wednesday Jun 25, 2014 by Keith Cline - Founder, VentureFizz

At an early age, Dr. Catherine Havasi had an interest in languages.  She loved to read about the history of languages and how the brain works.  It was this interest and passion that were the early building blocks for where she is today. 

Born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA, Catherine developed an interest in artificial intelligence and computer science.  Although Carnegie Mellon is a fine academic institution in her backyard of Pittsburgh, she was eager to move somewhere else and she choose to pursue her studies at MIT.  It was there that she would have the opportunity to work with one of the early influencers in her life, Marvin Minsky. 

Marvin is a Professor at MIT and the co-founder of their Artificial Intelligence Lab.  In high school, Catherine read one of his books called The Society of Mind, which documents his theory on how the mind works.  

At MIT, Catherine was ambitious and right away she started connecting with grad students, which helped her gain access to the MIT Media Lab much earlier than most students, since the research in the Media Lab is primarily done by graduate students. 

OpenMind Common Sense  / ConceptNet 

It was the late 90’s and there was a lot of excitement with the web, as the dot-com boom was in full force.  She noticed a trend of people putting their knowledge on the internet through different forums and websites like Slashdot.  This was also the pre-Google years, where people weren’t as savvy around searching on the web with the first iteration of search engines like AltaVista & Lycos.  

At the time, consumers would type in a search query with a question, as if they were talking to a person.  The technology powering the search engines didn’t understand the question and wouldn’t provide the optimal results.  You might remember the ads for Ask Jeeves and their butler, which tried to tackle this issue with the ability for consumers to ask questions with “normal language.” 

Thus, she started working with a team that was conducting research to see if they could make searching on the internet better by teaching the computer common sense.  It ended up being an early version of crowdsourcing, where they opened up a simply designed website called OpenMind Common Sense.  This gave people the ability to write simple sentences to teach a computer about the world we live in.  For example, phrases like “the sun is hot” or “cotton is soft.”  

The information gathered from the OpenMind Common Sense website ended up being used as the foundation for ConceptNet, which is an open source, multilingual knowledge base, representing words and phrases that people use and the common-sense relationships between them.  ConceptNet is still an active open source project today. 

The goal was to use the research from teaching computers digital intuition to tackle many problems, not just searching on the web. 

For example, it could be used in the support center in the consumer products industry.  A consumer might contact the company because his or her toothpaste smells musty.  Humans can start to diagnose the problem right away and figure out if there is something wrong with the supply chain or the manufacturing process.  Or, is this an isolated issue where the consumer has a weird sense of smell.  However, a computer can’t process this type of information or logic the same way and their research would help computers understand the world more like a person and less like a machine.  


The technology that is the underlying foundation for Luminoso was spun out of the MIT Media Lab in 2010.  They are building systems based on text analytics that read and understand data like a person in high and low volumes.   Their client roster is a who’s who of leading companies:  Mars, General Mills, Intel, Virgin Active, Scott’s, ConAgra Foods, etc. 

Picture of the four founders of Luminoso.  Catherine is the third one in wearing the red jacket.

Luminoso’s SaaS based technology can be used to help companies solve lots of problems like market research, customer support, and lots of other use cases. 

For instance, if a company is designing a new product, they can use all the data that is available across email, product feedback, reviews & discussions online to analyze and ultimately help a company make the right decision.   If you are a CPG company, a lot of the success of a product depends on how the consumer is going to respond to it and ultimately buy it.  So, instead of working in a vacuum, they allow companies to leverage the data that is accessible to make educated decisions… which in return, should result in better products for consumers and better sales for the CPG company. 

This is very timely and cool… you can witness the power of Luminoso’s technology firsthand, as they are powering SONY’s One Stadium Live product for following the World Cup.  This product helps you cut through the noise in social media, especially when a single hashtag - #WorldCup – doesn’t help you follow and find the information that is meaningful for your team.  Thus, this product uses Luminoso’s technology to turn the flood of social media into a true online fan experience, where individuals can participate in the conversations that matter to them. 

Luminoso has 25 employees in Kendall Square and they are moving to new offices in Central Square over the summer to support their growth, as they are hiring aggressively.

Future / Personal

Catherine is really excited about the growth potential of the company, as they are in an exciting area of technology that is emerging and truly leveraging the power of Big Data.  

As part of the MIT Media Lab, Catherine has access to see the what the future may look like with all the groundbreaking research and products.  She believes that 3-D printing is going to fundamentally change manufacturing. She also believes that predictive analytics will make a huge impact to healthcare in terms of specialized medicine and improving our quality of life.  

Outside of work, Catherine loves theatre.  She previously participated in lots of productions, but obviously she has less time for acting these days, as the CEO & Co-Founder of a startup.  The last play she caught was The Old Man and The Old Moon, which is actually on tour now and coming to Boston soon.

Keith Cline is the Founder of VentureFizz.  You can follow him on Twitter (@kcline6) by clicking here. 

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