Highlights from boston.com/hive, Boston’s source for innovation news
More than 1,000 companies use HourlyNerd’s stable of freelance business consultants, but the Harvard Business School startup has just struck a deal with one you might not expect: Microsoft.
The tech giant has no shortage of smart staffers guiding its own operations, of course, but many of its roughly 100,000 partners who sell Microsoft products do not. These are often small- and medium-size companies that fix computers or offer IT services — with engineering degrees aplenty but nary an MBA.
So Microsoft has agreed to connect partners to HourlyNerd, which has about 2,000 business students and graduates available for short-term contracts, usually at lower prices than big consulting firms. Businesses list their needs and the range of fees they are willing to pay on the HourlyNerd website. Consultants then submit pitches, name their prices, and the companies make their picks.
Microsoft already has an online portal where partners can access webinars and other business improvement tools, and is adding HourlyNerd, which in September closed a $750,000 seed investment round led by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban. In exchange, HourlyNerd will provide data on common problems to Microsoft.
“We think this arrangement is very big,” said Pat Petitti, cochief executive of HourlyNerd. “I think it’s probably only the beginning of our partnership with Microsoft. It’s hard to reach SMBs in general, and this is a great way to reach them with a really big name behind us in Microsoft.”
— CALLUM BORCHERS
Startup creating data visualization apps
Plenty of people work with big data sets that don’t exactly spring to life with bar graphs or spider charts. So what if there was an app store for visualization tools that offered just the right thing for exploring, manipulating, and wringing insights from your data?
A six-person Cambridge startup called Exaptive is working on it, creating a collection of visualization “building blocks” that can be assembled in different ways to get new views into data sets.
“If you’re trying to develop new treatments for a disease, you might want to see a heat map of the genes that are varying the most in the disease, but also have a word cloud next to it to see what researchers are saying about how those genes work, from all the PubMed articles about them,” said Dave King, Exaptive’s chief executive and cofounder.
The startup has already been collaborating on data visualizations with early users at Harvard’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, the Accelerated Cure Project for Multiple Sclerosis, and geoscientists at Penn State. Exaptive’s initial focus has been on working with early users to build custom visualizations for their data sets, but now it is starting to license its platform to customers who want to create their own visualizations. Eventually, King says that Exaptive hopes to create an app store or marketplace where anyone can sell visualization modules they have built, buy modules they need, and even combine two or more modules.
“Data visualization is a hugely powerful tool,” says King. “It lets computers do what they’re good at, and then it enables humans to identify what’s interesting in the data set.” Earlier this year, the company has raised a small seed round of funding from friends and family, and it is already cash-flow positive.
— SCOTT KIRSNER
Free teachers’ digital tools
After two years of providing low-cost digital textbooks to students, Boundless is expanding to a key element of the education world: teachers.
The Boundless Teaching Platform is a free tool for educators who want to use the Boston-based startup’s textbooks in their curriculums. The platform allows teachers to customize Boundless content to their syllabuses and view statistics on how students are engaging with course materials. It also includes teaching materials such as lecture slides and quizzes.
Boundless was founded in 2011 as a more flexibly priced alternative to conventional paper textbooks, with content “matched” with the website’s own editions.
The company says it has grown a user base that exceeds 2 million students. It has also drawn the ire of several major publishers, who sued the startup in April 2012.
The publishers alleged that the design and layout of some “Boundless alternative” textbooks — products designed and marketed specifically as substitutes for commonly assigned paper textbooks — were similar enough to theirs to constitute copyright infringement.
As of August, Boundless and the publishers were reportedly in settlement talks.
Also in August, Boundless introduced its first paid products, priced at $19.99. Boundless premium textbooks take fuller advantage of the dynamic possibilities of digital media: Instead of merely presenting the information in a linear fashion, like a paper book, Boundless premium textbooks incorporate interactive elements — specifically active recall and spaced repetition — to help cement the information in students’ long-term memories.
Before the debut of Boundless’s premium products, all its offerings were free, and the business was financed through venture funding. As of April 2012, it had raised $8 million in two rounds.
Boundless founder and chief executive Ariel Diaz is optimistic about the low-cost, digital textbook paradigm that his company has helped create. He predicts that within five to 10 years, paper textbooks will command less than 50 percent of the market.
Copyright has its uses, he said, but what “it shouldn’t do is protect obsolete business models.”
— NICK COX