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Innovation Economy

After attack, tech firms balance help, promotion

Entrepreneurs are hard-wired to spot opportunities and build solutions. So with everyone feeling a bit schizophrenic after the past week — from the blasts to the aftermath to the president’s visit to the shootings to the manhunt — we saw a bit of a schizophrenic reaction in the local tech scene.

Almost instantly, days before the city announced its One Fund charitable initiative, a group of entrepreneurs began raising money for victims using the site Fundraise.com. By Friday, they’d blown past an initial goal of $50,000 and were closing in on $200,000. Others scrambled to build a new website, EvidenceUpload.org, that simplified the task of uploading photographic evidence from a mobile phone and having it forwarded along to the FBI.

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But you also had people sharing “We Love Boston” images that happened to include their company’s logo (whoops, quick apology), and entrepreneurs showing up on television and in print to tout their software’s ability to find clues to a crime amid social media chatter. Buzzient founder Timothy B. Jones endlessly tweeted about his Bloomberg TV and New York Times press hits last week; the start-up, once based in Boston, now seems to operate out of Kennebunkport, Maine. (Jones didn’t respond to my requests for comment.)

“The right phrase here is, where can you help out by being a technologist, rather than seeing it as a business opportunity,” says Christopher Ahlberg. His Cambridge start-up, Recorded Future, analyzed Web mentions of pressure cooker bombs over the past three years and published a map showing where they had been concentrated. He stresses that he “wasn’t calling the media” last week, but that “we did have some in-bound requests for comment.”

Just as the events of Sept. 11, 2001, created “market pull” for new kinds of technologies within the military, intelligence agencies, and the newly formed Transportation Security Administration, it’s possible that the events of April 15, 2013, could, too. Bedford-based iRobot sold scads of surveillance robots called PackBots to the military to explore caves in Afghanistan and investigate possible roadside bombs in Iraq.

Today, there are already local companies working on smaller and more sensitive devices to detect explosives, ways to gather intelligence from information posted online, and approaches to analyzing video footage from mobile phones and security cameras.

Laura Teodosio says her MIT spin-out, Salient Stills, originally started selling its technology to newspapers that wanted to extract high-quality still images from a videotape. But in the months before 9/11, Salient began working with the Boston Police Department to sift through closed-circuit videos related to a string of drugstore robberies. Since then, Salient has worked with the Metropolitan Police Service in London to investigate the subway bombings in that city in 2005, and she also says that a number of “three-letter agencies” were relying on Salient’s software in the wake of last Monday’s blasts on Boylston Street.

One thing the software does is take videos from various sources and put them into a single software application so they can be scoured. But Teodosio explains that it is also possible to hunt not just for faces, but “you can also look for someone of a particular size, or a logo on their bag, or how fast or slow they’re moving, or whether they have a limp.”

Recorded Future, based in Cambridge, built software that can track mentions of a particular topic on the public Web, like “shoulder-fired missile,” and tag the mentions based on geographic origin and time. But information from the public Web can also be blended with classified information that has been gathered by intelligence agencies. “Everyone is looking at this flow of Web and social media data, and trying to figure out how you get usable intelligence out of it,” says Ahlberg.

In 2010, Waltham’s Thermo Scientific paid $145 million for a local start-up, Ahura Scientific, that designed portable sensing devices that could detect the presence of explosives and other chemicals; Thermo now markets Ahura’s TruDefender and FirstDefender products to security and law enforcement agencies worldwide.

A newer start-up, 908 Devices of Boston, raised $8 million last September to develop a device it anticipates could be more sensitive than Ahura’s, detecting a wide array of dangerous compounds at trace levels on people’s hands or surface materials.

Chief executive Kevin Knopp was a cofounder of Ahura, and he says 908’s first product could be out as soon as next year, geared to bomb squads and first responders. But prices of these explosives detectors are still steep: north of $40,000, which may limit their use in the near-term.

Last year, iRobot began selling a “throwable” robot about the size of a hard-cover dictionary, the FirstLook, which is light enough to be tossed through an open window or over a fence. It sells for $20,000. Some of the company’s bigger and more expensive ’bots were on the job in Watertown Thursday night, checking out one of the suspects’ abandoned vehicles.

The company often walks that delicate line between offering assistance by dispatching loaner robots, as it did in 2001 in Lower Manhattan, and highlighting its involvement. Chief executive Colin Angle said high-profile situations like the pursuit of the Marathon bombers “shows the difference that robots can make in these intensely dangerous moments,” and may spur other law enforcement agencies to consider acquiring their own ’bots.

Back in 2001, entrepreneurs were searching for any kind of new customer to fill to the post-dot-com void. It took them a while to realize that even with the best product and the noblest of intentions, selling to government agencies can be a slow and painful process.

“They need to get to know you, vet you, have your stuff tested by third-party labs, and come to trust you,” says Teodosio. “It’s a long road.”

Today’s tech companies may not be as desperate for government customers as they were in 2001, but I’m guessing at least a few will decide to travel down that road. And they just might help us avoid future attacks, or at least track down the perpetrators with less bloodshed.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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