By Anna Lynn Spitzer
Irvine, CA, December 11th, 2013 -- UC Irvine professor Chen Li jots equations directly on the windows of his new office overlooking a busy intersection near Orange County’s John Wayne Airport. The view just outside is loaded with information, he says, which he wants to make easier for you to search.
Li is the founder of SRCH2, the inaugural startup housed in Calit2’s TechPortal business incubator, and now the first to generate enough capital to move from the incubator to its own offices. In a world with so much readily available information, search tools can be either limiting or empowering. Li’s proprietary algorithm provides instantaneous, “search-as-you-type,” error-tolerant results for large amounts of data. CEO Dev Bhatia describes SRCH2 as a disruptive search technology because it takes advantage of the recently decreased cost and increased availability of computer memory.
In fact, you may already be using SRCH2’s technology on your mobile phone, social networks or cable boxes without realizing it.
Visitors to last summer’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival searched shows throughout the city with GiggleMaps, powered by SRCH2. “SRCH2 is the only technology which can support instant/forward search and geolocation at the same time with the kind of performance consumers have come to expect from their smartphones,” says Karl Hampson, group board director at Realise, the Edinburgh-based agency that developed GiggleMaps. “It was a perfect fit.
“We’ve been working with search for 14 years and when I first saw SRCH2 doing that, I realized I was seeing something new.”
Li first applied this technology at UCI in 2008, when he created Psearch to help search for people in the campus directory even with incomplete or misspelled information. Start typing “Wil” in the search box, and instantaneously a list of names matching Wilson, William, Williams, Bill and so on, start appearing.
Ever since graduating from Stanford, surrounded by friends who became wildly successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Li had dreamed of an opportunity to turn his academic research into a practical technology. He finally found it.
“Psearch is really the seed of this company,” he says. “Then we thought about how to scale it up, and asked, can this work on other data sets?”
Initial funding to create SRCH2 (originally called BiMaple) in 2010 came from Li’s personal finances. It was a turning point. “There is a psychological change when your company becomes a real legal entity,” he says. “You have to decide it’s time to stop thinking and start doing.”
He hired two UCI information and computer sciences students and was seriously considering following Steve Jobs’ and Steve Wozniak’s lead by running the company in his garage.
But when Li learned Calit2 director G.P. Li was looking for startups to house in the building’s new incubator, he jumped at the chance.
SRCH2 resided in TechPortal for its first three years, where Li says he benefited from the knowledge, ideas and creativity on campus, especially from those outside of his field. “One thing I learned is to work with more people I don’t usually interact with – outside of computer sciences – to make connections, learn and grow,” he says.
Li says he is appreciative of the services TechPortal provided, and found the services far exceeded the discounted space, security and networks. The institute-generated publicity and the opportunity to meet high-profile university visitors who toured the incubator were also important benefits for a startup business.
In 2012, ready to move to the next level, Li landed Dev Bhatia as CEO. Bhatia has managed four previous start-ups, including one acquired by Yahoo!
“The thing that excited me about SRCH2 is that the asset was in place. It’s one thing to pitch a venture capitalist with an idea, and it’s another to go in with Chen and a product,” says Bhatia.
Bhatia was also impressed with Li’s entrepreneurial spirit, which he thinks came from Li’s experiences in the Silicon Valley and working for technology companies prior to arriving at UCI. “He’s got the goods and he’s got the right appetite for risk.”
All the best search companies, Bhatia explains, had a long incubation period and came out of a university.
This is not the only way SRCH2 fits what Bhatia describes as the template for successful search company startups. “In nine years, there have been nine exits in search software on the enterprise side – all over $100 million and three over $1 billion,” he says. He predicts SRCH2 will be the 10th.
“We had some hard times, some ups and downs,” says Li. “But when I look back, it’s worth it.” And when he looks forward, he sees continuing innovation, including introducing version 4.0 of their enterprise search software, with a new round of improvements this fall – driven by those algorithms on Li’s window. They compute an exciting future for search, and for SRCH2.