Q&A: As one startup found out, intellectual property generated by Microsoft Research can jump-start a new venture.
TORONTO (RUSHPRNEWS) July 31, 2008 – If you’ve ever returned from a getaway feeling that it didn’t live up to your expectations, you’ll appreciate the value of PlanetEye, a travel-planning Web site with a difference. The site offers geotagged photographs, insight from other travelers and local experts, and extensive travel metadata, all of which can be accessed from an interactive map – a geographic browser, in technical parlance. Because users can explore travel options and easily and quickly research, reserve, organize and share their trips, the result is smarter travel planning.Part of what makes this Toronto-based startup unique is its use of a technology fresh from Microsoft’s research labs, which PlanetEye licensed through Microsoft’s intellectual property (IP) licensing program. Called World Wide Media eXchange (WWMX), the technology enables the indexing of a large volume of geotagged photographs and provides the tools to access them via the geographic browser. WWMX was invented in 2002 by Kentaro Toyama, then with the Interactive Visual Media group at Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash., and currently assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India in Bangalore.
PressPass recently spoke with Butch Langlois, CEO of PlanetEye, and Bob Tenczar, director of marketing for Microsoft’s Intellectual Property Licensing division, to learn more about how an idea goes from the lab to commercialization.
PressPass: Can you give a brief overview of PlanetEye.com?
Langlois: Making travel plans usually requires visiting scattered Web sites to get various bits of information that then need to be pieced together. PlanetEye pulls all of this information about attractions, hotels, restaurants and the like onto one site, and then it enhances this content by making use of the latest Web technologies, including mapping, geotagging, user-generated content and personalization. We gathered content from a wide variety of external sources, from The New York Times to travel bloggers.
PlanetEye’s home page. The site offers geotagged photographs, insight from other travelers and local experts, and extensive travel metadata, all of which can be accessed from an interactive map
Click for high-res image
At the core of PlanetEye’s travel planning service are Travel Packs, the digital equivalent of the manila folders some of us use to file travel ideas we clip from magazines. Our Travel Packs let you “clip” photographs and reviews found on PlanetEye. You can then book your flight, hotel and car rentals right from your Travel Pack through Travelocity, make dinner reservations through OpenTable, purchase tickets via StubHub or book a spa appointment with WaySpa.
Also, we keep track of member preferences and interests. So if we learn that you are, say, a golf aficionado, we’ll put golf-related results higher on the results page when you start a vacation search.
PressPass: How did the idea for PlanetEye and the collaboration with Microsoft come about?
World Wide Media eXchange (WWMX)
Kentaro Toyama, assistant managing director of Microsoft Research India, began work on the World Wide Media eXchange (WWMX) technology in 2002 as a way to explore the full value of location information for photos. When Toyama and the team started the project, there were very few photo databases online, and fewer still that attempted to do anything with location information; but with the recent availability of GPS and location-aware mobile devices, technologies like the WWMX have become dramatically more relevant. Their work made it possible for people with digital cameras all over the world to contribute to a huge database of photographs, literally documenting the globe. The possibilities to search location-based photos with this technology are endless.
Click here for more information on Microsoft Research and the group’s recent initiatives.
Langlois: In 2005, Rick Segal, a partner with JL Albright Venture Partners and a former Microsoft employee, heard about the WWMX technology and started to think about how it could be leveraged in a travel application. WWMX essentially associates digital photographs with the GPS coordinates at which they were shot. He didn’t have the details figured out at that point, but felt there was the germ of an exciting idea there, and worked with the Microsoft IP licensing group to obtain a license for WWMX in exchange for an equity stake in the company. With investment from venture capitalists, Segal formed the company and began developing a product and business plan.
PressPass: Is that a typical Microsoft licensing story?
Tenczar: There are many different paths to licensing. In this case, someone came to us to learn more about a specific technology. We love working closely with startups like PlanetEye because it helps us see the real-world value of our research projects. This company has taken technology out of the Microsoft lab and spun it in a way that is innovative and compelling. And many of these partnerships spur further ideas and we can head back into the lab and build on those. Microsoft really benefits from these partnerships.
We also make efforts to go out and evangelize the various technologies we have available through marketing efforts and networking. Our IP licensing Web site is constantly being updated to include the most recent additions to our portfolio. Anyone interested in learning about how they can incorporate Microsoft technology into their business should check out the site.
There are different levels of collaboration between Microsoft and licensees. In the case of PlanetEye, our developers worked with theirs for several months to productize the raw technology. This high-collaboration model is similar to the integration found with our IP Ventures program, through which we are in touch with venture capitalists and economic development agencies throughout the world. But if collaboration isn’t a priority, we also have a “low-touch” model of licensing, under which there’s relatively little interaction between Microsoft and the licensing company or individual.
PressPass: Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs contemplating a licensing agreement?
Langlois: Yes. Entrepreneurs should understand that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel; there’s a lot of existing technology out there that’s much less expensive than what it would cost to develop it yourself. Techies like to think they can build anything in a weekend. It’s usually not so easy. Letting somebody else do the “heavy lifting” can help you avoid a lot of headaches and give you time to work on the business plans and applications, which are often the real keys to success.
This is the third venture I’ve been involved in, and I can tell you that working with Microsoft saved us a huge amount of time and money and made the startup process much easier than it was with my two previous ventures. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that our product would have evolved very differently without this collaboration with Microsoft.
Tenczar: I second that “heavy lifting” bit. Entrepreneurs should see IP licensing from companies like Microsoft as an opportunity to jump-start their businesses. It speeds their time to market, lowers their development costs, eliminates the risk that months of research won’t pan out, gives them access to cutting-edge technology and some of the world’s top researchers. We believe this is an innovative approach to IP and a great way for us to collaborate with entrepreneurs around the world.
Langlois: Yes, entrepreneurs shouldn’t discount the inspirational value of looking at existing technology packages. You may think you have a precise vision of how your product and business could operate, but once you look at all the capabilities of an existing piece of core technology, it can help you evolve and fine-tune your vision. That’s certainly been our experience.