MetaCarta maps a new path

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The founder of MetaCarta Inc. turned to the government market before getting established in the commercial world, which took his company in an unexpected direction.

John Frank developed the underlying technology and founded the company in 1999 while a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MetaCarta uses maps and geographic information to search and analyze unstructured data.

For example, if an intelligence agency has documents that include the word "media," MetaCarta's search engine can analyze the context of surrounding words to determine if it is a reference to a city named Media and, if so, provide latitude and longitude coordinates for the city.

Frank, who serves as president and chief technology officer, put together an advisory board and then met with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. DARPA officials offered the company $500,000 to continue developing the technology, and Frank abandoned his plans to build a Web-based business for commercial users. Instead, he hired Navy veteran Randy Ridley as vice president and general manager and set to work repackaging the software to run on secure networks.

"That transition was extremely fast," Frank said. "We had been trying to figure out how to connect [the tool] to somebody like Yahoo."

Hiring Ridley, who understood the federal procurement process, was the key to success, Frank said. But officials still had to spend several months transforming the company from one focused on the commercial market to one targeted toward government users.

Now, the 21-person company counts the Army, Navy and several intelligence agencies as customers. And company officials are trying to build a market with civilian agencies as well, Ridley said.

Had DARPA not taken an interest, Frank said, MetaCarta would be struggling. "We would have found another vertical [market] and probably would have had to work harder to get there," he said. "The unique thing about this part of the government is they really do want to find the new tools. It might have been hard to find another vertical [market] this good."

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