Wednesday Jan 4, 2012 by Keith Cline - Founder, VentureFizz
Here's a nice little treat to kick-off the New Year! Our Octane series is back!!!
Our guest today is Josh Feast, the Founder & CEO of Cogito Health in Charlestown. Cogito is pioneering the delivery of analytics that help people and organizations hear the biologically-based “honest” signals that underlie normal conversation. These signals describe how humans speak and react, and can be used to infer mood and predict behavior. Their technology combines a decade of MIT Human Dynamics Lab research with the latest organizational management ideas from MIT Sloan.
VentureFizz: What does Cogito do?
Josh Feast: We quantify human psychology by automatically analyzing subtle behavioral signals embedded in how people speak, move and react. We supply our behavioral sensing systems to assist organizations that are responsible for improving the health and welfare of populations.
As an example, we have developed an automated way to help our clients identify depression and measure engagement by analyzing nurse phone calls. We are also deeply involved in several initiatives to develop scaleable, pervasive, and privacy-appropriate systems for identifying potential mental health issues in vulnerable populations (such as returning soldiers).
VF: How was the idea generated?
JF: The scientific vision that led to Cogito was developed over the course of a decade at the MIT Human Dynamics Lab, directed by our co-founder Professor Sandy Pentland. Sandy is a pattern-matching and psychology guru and had the fundamental insight that certain social signals in our behavior link back to our brain and biology, and can be quantified using modern methods.
The business idea and mission of Cogito came from my early experience working for large health and human services organizations. I was exposed to how challenging it is to run such organizations without the benefit of scaleable and objective measurement systems. Unlike widget manufacturers, such organizations have to quantify fuzzy human factors to know if they are making progress. I also saw the broad societal side-effects of mental health problems and tough industry challenges like employee burnout and expensive wasted high-touch interventions.
When I saw Sandy’s experimental results at MIT, problem met solution, the light bulb turned on, and the Cogito adventure started.
VF: How does the business & revenue model work?
JF: Pretty straight-forwardly! We deliver our analytic systems to our enterprise clients, and if they like them and they solve a problem, we get paid. We also have an active and growing research group – unusual for a young company perhaps, but something that we believe is fundamental to what we do. We have discovered that we can effectively push the scientific boundaries that we need pushed, and have certain advantages over traditional academic environments – particularly around access to resources and large data sets, and because our mission gives us a way to objectively assess research quality and value.
VF: What lessons have you learned along the way, since starting Cogito?
JF: Not easy just to highlight one or two! I think one of the main things we all learn in these types of endeavors is focus a lot of effort on “who” – with the right people almost anything can be nailed.
VF: Can you share some advice to entrepreneurs in terms of how to build a business from an academic research project?
JS: I think it is important to keep the distinction clear in one’s mind. An academic research project is about advancing knowledge in general, whereas a business is about providing value to a customer. An entrepreneur should, in my view, look at originating academic research as a potential part of a solution to an identified commercial problem… and keep the problem, not the solution, in the forefront of his or her mind.
VF: How did you fund the company? Did you raise outside capital?
JF: We were lucky enough to get an initial seed loan from the City of Boston, which helped us establish our offices. Apart from that, we’ve been able to grow old-school-style (now new-school style?) through revenue. I think that this has kept us focused and disciplined, and its nice for everyone in the company to know that it is “their ship”.
VF: What advice would you give entrepreneurs in Boston who are starting a company?
JF: Sometimes I read comments out there like “the idea isn’t important”. I don’t think that is true – I think that it is tremendously helpful to do something that you feel in some way draws the strands of your life together, and makes your existence meaningful. I would suggest focusing on something in your experience that you want to change or improve about the world.
Of course, once you have that focus in mind, and can visualize a way forward, it is all about the “who” questions!
VF: The market has been very active in terms of hiring and talent is in short supply. What has worked for you, in terms of building out your team at Cogito?
JF: I think it helps a lot to really work on maintaining a high level of quality in the team - even if you have to expand a little slower as a result. If great candidates come in and say “Yes I’d love to work with all these people”, then you have a huge advantage in a competitive market.
VF: Any suggestions around managing your time while building a company & product that you can pass along?
JF: At Cogito we tend to think of things more as a marathon than a sprint. In some businesses the challenge is to make a frenetic land grab – in ours it is about excellence in engineering and delivery, careful planning and validation, and long-term relationships. The result is that we don’t overwork and try hard to provide life balance for our people. Of course, sometimes certain things just have to get out the door, but we try to keep those occasions to a minimum.
VF: If you weren't focused on building Cogito, what are some other underserved markets or emerging technologies where you could build a business?
JF: I’m a New Zealand native and I lived and worked in a bunch of places before coming to study in Boston. Perhaps for that reason I care quite a bit about international issues like freedom of movement of people - so maybe I would focus there. Happily, the vision for Cogito is most certainly global, as are almost all of our customers.