Big Data is a now common refrain that has resonance across nearly every industry and for just about every business or customer interaction. But what if we’ve only scratched the surface? That was the compelling question posed by Forge.AI co-founder Jennifer Lum during a conversation that also touched on her tech career and the need for more women to emerge as startup founders.
Fresh off raising an $11 million venture funding round, Forge.AI looks at the world around us and sees data everywhere. Like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, the team at Forge.AI views our surroundings as data — data that is there for the taking but largely unreadable to the masses.
As Lum explained to me, 80% of the data produced is unstructured. Think Twitter posts, newspaper articles, even reports from a connected thermostat. Lum said the sum total of these posts, devices, transactions and more create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data every day.
But because it is unstructured — meaning not able to be captured or read by most databases or analytics platforms — it cannot be used. Harnessing this data in a way that would improve our technology and potentially make our lives even better requires a time-and-labor intensive process called data preparation. In fact, Lum noted that 80% of a data scientist’s job is spent preparing data.
Forge employs cloud computing, machine learning and natural language technologies to turn this raw data into a structured format that can immediately be used by other systems. In doing so, it makes an enormous amount of new data available to scientists while removing much of their prior workload — giving them more to work with and more time to manipulate it.
This is not Lum’s first data rodeo. In fact, it’s her fifth startup in addition to time spent at some large public companies like Apple. One of her co-founders in Forge — Jim Crowley — was also a partner in an earlier data-focused startup in the mobile space. Together, they teamed up with Jack Crowley to launch Forge.
Jack had actually been focused on unstructured data two decades prior to the launch of Forge. That interest that was ahead of its time but became possible years later when the cloud computing infrastructure that could power his idea for harnessing unstructured data finally became widely accessible.
And Forge is not alone. The market for tools and technologies to capture this data is growing quickly, with WorldWide Big Data market projected to grow to $103 billion by 2027 from $42 billion in 2018.
To stand apart from this field and to hone its offering, Forge is focused on the financial services industry first. Lum is excited by the prospect of helping firms incorporate unstructured data into their modeling and decision making to create new opportunities and products for investment, risk management and beyond.
Just one small example could be the ability to mine unstructured data in company financial reports or videos of CEOs discussing their companies on cable news. By turning this into usable data, firms can expand their pool of information for modeling and machine learning derived decision making.
Despite having five tech startups under belt, a stint at Apple, and serving as an angel investor in a number of tech startups, Lum is no programmer and did not study computer science in college. Yet she says she always had a strong interest in technology, especially when it comes to figuring out how to apply new tech to solve meaningful problems.
She got her start in the industry when a friend pulled her into the tech startup world many years ago. These experiences gave her the opportunity to get involved with many initiatives within companies during rapid phases of growth.
That excitement and challenge is what fuels her, and what leads her to prefer startup environments. She enjoys working with smart people to build great products that solve real business problems. But she’s quick to point out that the life of a startup founder is not as glamorous as some would believe — it’s a lot of hard work filled with tough and lonely situations.
In describing her skill set, Lum attributes much of it to on-the-job learning. For example, a stint with a management consulting company helped her better incorporate strategy, analysis and change management into her tool kit. All valuable skills that helped her design and implement more scalable and efficient processes at her subsequent startups.
She has also learned many important lessons about what works best when building products, teams, and businesses. And she acknowledges that problem-solving, keeping a growth oriented mindset, and being open to constant change are critical skills in this space.
Lum would like to see more women as startup founders and CEOs. Beyond having the innate abilities and skills to success, she says it’s important for women to be launching companies and building products and services. In this way, women can shape the future of industries far outside of technology.