Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Interview with George Ruan and Donald Patterson, Quub
For today's interview, we connected with George Ruan and Dr. Don Patterson, the co-founders of Irvine-based Quub (www.quub.com), which has taken research which Dr. Patterson was working on at UC Irvine and applied it to the world of Twitter, Facebook, MySpace, and other social networking sites. Ruan is the CEO of the firm, and Dr. Patterson is the CTO. Ruan and Patterson tell us a bit about the service and how it was inspired by Twitter, the company's experience spinning out technology from UC Irvine, and what its plans are now.
What's the idea behind Quub?
George Ruan: Quub is fresh from the research labs at UC Irvine, and was created from extensive research on creating an intelligent system for making status updates easier. Despite the popularity in Twitter, which is used by just small minority of people, status updates are not something most people can use in a consistent and meaningful manner.
Don Patterson: The phenomenon of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter has caught the imagination, but the function that these services serve for people has been around for a long time. I'd really include things like the telephone busy signal, voicemail, or a lot of other different communications tools, all of which give the ability to provide information on what's going on at the other end of the channel. What we were looking at, when this first started taking off, was using instant messaging lines and really trying to see how people were using them socially. A handful of people were using them to tell people what they were thinking--what the call now microblogging--and using it to send messages to a small group of people, about things such as happy birthdays, to tell jokes, or to vent emotionally. One of the very interesting things people were doing, which is the foundation of Quub, is what we've since stated calling micropresence--providing short little bits of information to help people reading their instant messages a clue of what was happening on the other side of the instant messaging line. Our goal was to take those observations, and subsequent research, and turn that into commercial products.
What was the path from taking the technology from UC Irvine and commercialization it?
Don Patterson: I was doing my graduate studies at the University of Washington, and was doing things in the field of activity recognition, which is recognizing sensors and getting computers to identifying what people are doing. I got disillusioned that researchers were coming up with lists of activities like biking, walking, sitting, standing, driving--which were not things that most people think about as activities they'd want to broadcast. What we're hoping people do in Quub, is instead to use it to coordinate their interactions.
George Ruan: About two years ago, I had a midlife crisis, as a 27-year old. I had tried my hand at some startups, and was mildly successful. But, I wanted to do something to change the world. I started looking for a partner to start a new business with, and I knew it had to be in computers. Unfortunately, I didn't know anything about computers, and thought--naively--that a Computer Science professor might know lots about computers. So, I pulled up the UC Irvine faculty list, and started calling professors. I happened to connect with Don, read his research papers, and in about 2007, learned about Twitter and started using it. I knew it was going to be the future, and that this kind of communications would become the standard that everyone would communicate on. At that time, Dr. Patterson's research was very focused on instant messaging, and I though--why not use this on Twitter, and let the computer give recommendations on what I could twitter throughout the day. We started working in that direction, and here we are two years later.
Don Patterson: It took a long time to converge on what we were actually doing, and we started on a path of developing stuff, working with interaction designers, and forcing ourselves to identify what service we were really trying to provide.
George, can you talk more about your prior startup experience?
George Ruan: I did four startups before Quub. My first company I founded in college as an undergrad, Animebooks.com, and I sold that a few years ago. It was in early 2000, and Anime was just becoming big in the U.S. We imported animation artwork into the U.S., and became a profitable company during the Dot Com bubble, but we made money. Right after that, I established connections with lots of artists--who were customer and friends--and started publishing books for them. That was my second startup, a publishing company. After a few years, I graduated from college, and it sort of felt juvenile selling comic books, so I started a medical science company--buying OEM supplies in the U.S., and started my own brand which we sold in China to local hospitals--at a much lower cost than they could purchase brand names for. My fourth venture was a failure, and focused on creating a social network for people who were distraught or sick--Hopecube.com--but after about a year connected with Don and felt his research had a lot more world changing potential.
Back to the service--how do people use Quub?
George Ruan: Users who sign in to our site see three boxes. Those three boxes are categorized. One says where you are, the second is what you are doing, the third is for microblogging--whatever they want. The first time you long in, you'll see a list of guesses in the boxes, based on the U.S. time survey, on what you might be doing at a moment in time.
Don Patterson: It also uses your personal history, and other sources on your mobile client based on point-of-interest databases, plus your calendar.
George Ruan: You enter your status, and the recommendations on the page, and you can choose what you want to enter or update. The status then updates within a second. You can do that repeatedly, and you don't need to think about what to type in.
Don Patterson: The first reason to offer the service is to broadcast your status to many sites. What you enter goes out to Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and internally to our own social network. We've got privacy controls to control who gets what message. So that's the first reason people come to us. But, what we hope and promote, is that people will use it to communicate in a different way. We provide support for giving real time, very frequent, contextual updates on what you're doing. This is working now, mainly for people who just joined the service, but once you've got enough friends online, you can use our smart address book, and you can pull out your cell phone and scroll down your list of contacts, and before calling them you might see that your friend is in a movie theater, and that it's not a good time; or, that your mom is at a restaurant, your brother is church, and you can decide to contact them a different way or wait to make a call to them.
What's the business model behind this?
George Ruan: We've got a very solid revenue model. The idea is we do not want to go down the current path of the Web 2.0 crowd and build a service and give it away for free, and hope to get enough eyeballs to run ads on the site. Instead, our revenue model is to figure out creative ways to pull contextual information out of status updates, and integrate it into aspects of real life. We're currently in discussions with two different companies, who are commercializing custom-built applications based on our service.
Don Patterson: From an academic perspective, where we can add value, is first, making it much easier to enter a status; two, to make your status go out to more places; and three, to make use of that status, for example, using it for a work log to keep track of what you did during the day, introspective stuff, or having that status trigger different things in the world. For example, you might be driving home, and allow your digital world to align with the real world, so if you're driving to let people know you can't take a phone call because your in the car, and to do that automatically.
How has the spinout experience from UCI been?
Don Patterson: From my perspective, being at the University, there aren't very many really UC Irvine specific barriers to commercialization. People there encourage commercializing research, but, that said, UCI in particular and maybe the area around here is not very primed to do tech startups. They're really focused on biomedical and other industries. The sort of support mechanisms and networks in place really are about pharmaceuticals, biomedical, and patents. When I first approached UC Irvine about commercialization, they thought there was no value in it, and said they were not going to license it or retain IP on it. Though, it was still good for the university to see relevant technology coming out of UC Irvine, generating jobs for California and future industries--they love that from a marketing and promotional aspect. From a licensing/IP perspective, they really haven't caught on to software yet and realized it's a real moneymaker, like a school like Stanford has.
George Ruan: The process was very smooth. The university does want to encourage commercialization that comes out of the labs. That said, UC Irvine is focused on innovation rather than business development in the local tech community per se, but has proven to be a resource and offer their help with commercializing innovation coming from the school in any way they can.
Have you engaged the local funding community at all?
George Ruan: We want to make our startup generates its own revenue as soon as possible, and to fund its own growth. I personally have funded the venture for the first year, from the money I made from my previous companies. We've also raised one small round of angel funding. In the end, we want to build a commercial application which can fund our own growth. We'll look at venture funding once we've proved our value and signed some customer agreements.
Don Patterson: We have a number of contacts, both on our advisory board, and through some of the technology organizations here that are not part of the university such as OCTANe. We've got some contacts there waiting in the wings to help us when we're really looking for funding. At this point, we're trying to focus on the immediate value, and not to sell the whole operation.
George Ruan: Bootstrapping and making every single penny counts is a great thing. There are too many startups we've seen who have raised lots of money, and been drunk with funds--they've rented a big office, hired lots of people, before they even have an idea of what they would want to build or monetize. Bootstrapping forces us to be very creative with our very limited resources. Without that bootstrapping mentality, we probably wouldn't have thought of the application we've built until later.