Think big data is boring? This fast-rising Israeli startup, with $50 million in funding, wants to put the Eureka back into statistics
When most of us think of “big data,” we think of large companies collecting information about our habits and using it to target advertising. Or we think of companies that analyze data patterns to predict the next cyber attack.
In trying to explain how his company stands out from the crowd, Sisense CEO Amir Orad tells Geektime that his company’s tool is for human beings.
Typically with “big data” companies, says Orad, one company specializes in oil data, another in shipping. “They spend five years writing a predictive algorithm and it’s very rigid and very good at what it does,” says Orad, which is collecting data and spitting out a recommendation.
Sisense, says Orad, does something else. “It’s about data discovery; it’s about Eureka moments. There are many companies selling out-of-the-box sales optimization algorithms. But this is for executives who know their business and want to play with the data.”
On their way up
The company’s offices in Tel Aviv’s fashionable port area exude confidence and success, with high-end hip furniture and a happy buzz in the open workspace.
And no wonder. Sisense, which has been funded to the tune of $50 million so far, has grown by 300 percentage points in each year since its first funding round in 2010.
Most recently, it raised $30 million in a Series C round led by Randy Glein of DFJ Growth, a VC firm whose previous investments include Twitter, Yammer, Tesla Motors and SpaceX.
“There’s been a change in market adoption,” says Orad. “We’re moving from mainly SMBs to top five and top 10 Fortune companies.”
From a $145M exit to CEO of Sisense
And with this growth comes a change in leadership. Seven months after its latest funding round, Sisense’s board of directors announced that Amir Orad, previously CEO of NICE Actimize, would become the new CEO and be based in New York as opposed to Tel Aviv.
“I got a call from the board,” said Orad. “We are doing extremely well, they told me, hopefully we will one day go public. We need to bring experienced leadership in New York to continue boosting the business.”
The fact that Orad chose Sisense is actually a tribute to the company, since he wasn’t exactly begging for a job. During Orad’s tenure at NICE Actimize, the business grew from tens of millions in revenue to $200 million in revenue in 2014.
Prior to that, he was co-founder and CMO (along with Israeli politician Naftali Bennett) of Cyota, a cyber analytics company later acquired by RSA Security for $145 million.
“I’ve had options in my life and there’s a big reason why I chose this company,” says Orad. “The more I talked to clients, the more excited I became.”
Asked to name his competitors, Orad mentions two categories. “There is a company called Tableau, which is a great company. It does Excel on steroids. If you have a small amount of data, you put Tableau on top and it is very easy way to consume it. When you have a large amount of data, they tell you to go and buy millions of dollars of servers and you can use our tool on top of that.”
The other competitors, says Orad, are database companies.
“But the issue is they don’t make the data consumable. It’s not interactive for humans. We sit in the perfect middle between these two options.”
Orad says one thing most people don’t know about Sisense is that a significant percentage of its clients consist of other technology companies integrating their own platform with Sisense because they can make more money from their own technologies that way.
“We have people embedding us in hospitals, consulting companies, marketing companies, publishing companies.”
The company, which is growing by leaps and bounds, now has clients in Australia, South Korea, China, Canada and Mexico.
Fun ways to play with data
The best way to understand data discovery is to look at popular books by Malcolm Gladwell or Freakonomics authors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt and the quirky, serendipitous correlations they write about. For instance, social scientists in Canada found that professional level hockey players are disproportionately likely to be born in the first three months of the year. Similarly, Dubner and Levitt describe a data analyst who found that would-be terrorists were unlikely to buy life insurance. These correlations are not something someone could have hypothesized before that fact. Rather, they are a “discovery” human beings make based on patterns in the data.
Orad gives examples of such discoveries by Sisense clients. For instance, one airport used Sisense to try to figure out what happened to suitcases that were getting lost. They tracked the suitcases using cameras and fed that data into Sisense, which revealed that luggage losses were correlated with particular personnel and flights. Another client, a U.S.-based competitor to Walmart, used the tool to find out which behaviors preceded shoplifting in their stores, as well as identify the constellation of behaviors of pharmacists who were fulfilling phony prescriptions. This led to a lot of wrongdoers being nabbed, says Orad.
There are two ways that clients can use SiSense, explains Orad. For instance a doctor can comb her data for unexpected correlations and have a sudden Eureka moment. “Eureka! I’ve found a possible cause for cancer.” Or, alternatively, a doctor can use it to track certain indicators in an ongoing way and predict which patients are most at risk for, say, a heart attack.
Although this kind of discovery process, known in the industry as “business intelligence,” is nothing new, what is new, says Orad, is the sheer amount of data involved.
‘Take an e-commerce web site. For the same business size, say a $10 million business, they have 50 times more data than they had five years ago. And in five years, we’ll have probably 100 times more data.”
“Why? Because in the past you used to know that Leron bought a book for $20. That was the most you knew about your clients. Today you know that Leron bought a book, you know her entire demographics and life story, all of her friends and what she does for a living. You know where she went on your website and every book she looked at and what she read, [even] which chapters she liked more or less. And not only do you know that she bought a book, but that she bought jeans in this or that store.”
The vast proliferation of data makes business intelligence challenging, explains Orad.
“You can buy a cluster of 50 Hadoop servers to deal with it. Each server costs tens of thousands of dollars. But the data will grow ten more times in a few years. It’s never ending.”
A crazy student project that worked
This is where Sisense’s proprietary technology comes in. SiSense has patented something called “in-chip” technology. Sisense both stores information and performs calculations within the CPU (central processing unit), obviating the need to retrieve data perpetually from the disk and RAM. And this makes it 100 times faster than other data engines, according to Orad, and without the cost of complex databases and new servers.
The technology actually started as a class project for the founders, who were computer science students at the IDC (Interdisciplinary Center) Herzliya at the time.
“Seven years ago they had a crazy dream. Can we take all of this database BI (business intelligence) technology and embed it in a tiny little chip inside a PC? It was a completely ridiculous idea, but they managed to build it.”
The result, says Orad, “is that we’re 100 times more efficient than anyone else. We managed to do one billion rows on a standard off-the-shelf computer.”
Beyond that, says Orad, Sisense’s strength lies in its intuitive user interface and dashboard, which allows non-IT specialists to play with data and make discoveries on their own.
A plug for Israeli geeks
Orad wants to put the word out that there are dozens of positions available on the R&D team in Israel.
“We’re looking for hardcore techies on the core algorithm side and the front-end visualization and user side. If you want to be in a company that does so much good for so many businesses, this is the place.”