HUBweek Change Maker: Jana Eggers
Jana Eggers is CEO of Nara Logics, an artificial intelligence company based in Cambridge, with a focus on turning big data into smart actions. She will be speaking at @ HUBweek collaborator, the RIC’s Female Founders event on Tuesday, March 22.
You joined Nara Logics about a year and a half ago. What major factors were behind your decision to join the team?
As my career in software had progressed, I had gotten further from my scientific roots, as a mathematician who had worked in both life and physical sciences as well as computer science. I had a recruiter call me for a reference one day and being a great recruiter, he asked me what my dream job would be. I quipped that I had always said when I “retired” I would go back to Los Alamos and work on tech transfer, because I missed the depth of work in the sciences, so I was wondering if I had to wait for that, and if I could find job that had that combination. We laughed at my pipe dream, and then laughed again when he called me a few months later and said, “I have the perfect job for you. Neuroscience enough science for you?” So that’s the beginning of the story. The finish is that I joined because of the technology and the team. They were seeing some impressive early results, and had the right mix of people to take it to the next several iterations, as we learned what corporate customers need from synaptic intelligence.
Could you break down what and for whom Nara Logics does in its simplest form?
We take a company’s data, find connections in that data, and then make recommendations from those connections. Based on the data and the objective, the recommendations range from improving supply chains to patient care to portfolio optimization to personalized product recommendations. We do this by combining the advances in neuroscience, probabilistic inference and deep learning. Our results are enhanced by our ability to be context sensitive, i.e., taking into account all the real-time information surrounding a recommendation, as well as the history, and returning a reason why with every recommendation. Our platform helps companies use the data across their company to make smarter decisions.
I read a quote you shared around the concept of “making technology work for us versus us work at technology.” Can you share more behind how Nara Logics is trying to solve for that?
Think of us as flipping the problem on its head. Instead of us looking for needles in haystacks either by brute force or through some analysis that tells us where needles are most likely to be, we have found a way for the needles, or in this case relevant data to our context, to surface themselves. We are making the data itself smarter by connecting it across a network, like how our neurons are stronger through their connections across the network in our brains. We are at a point with technology with many advances coming together that we can build systems that support us versus systems that require us to put the pieces together. Take the simple example in the virtual assistant industry of meeting scheduling. Think about how much effort it still takes to coordinate schedules, get a meeting scheduled, add conferencing, remind everyone, etc., despite all of our technology. All of those tasks can and is being automated… that’s making the technology work for us.
What excites you most about the future of Nara Logics, as well as the possibilities for AI more broadly?
There was a great quote from a Fortune 100 CEO that summarized the problem we are solving well:
“Our management data came in the form of a 700-page report of financial line items. We spent 90% of our time…trying to assemble the data and ask the right questions — and 10% on the issue. Those proportions needed to be reversed.”
While we all thankfully are not experiencing the problem at the level of a 700-page report, we all spend too much time looking for and analyzing the data, instead of talking about the decisions at hand. I am excited about reversing those proportions for companies — surfacing the relevant data to a decision and the possible recommended actions. The opportunities are increasing as we have more and more data available to support decision making.
For AI more broadly, I mentioned above the concept of finally getting technology to work for us. Think about the analogy in our personal lives to what I focused on in the corporate example above. We also pull together a lot of information just to decide where and when to have our monthly dinner with a group of friends. I believe as a field we are going to head less into the “human replacement” realm and more into the “cognitive assistance” realm. We are the ones programming these systems after all. That said, we’ve seen in the past week with Google’s AlphaGo that the system played some “nonhuman” moves. We have an opportunity to learn from the systems we are creating. So there’s a great opportunity in computers providing cognitive assistance by bringing the right data together at the right time, but also showing us some new approaches we never tried.
What are you most proud of in your career thus far?
The teams I’ve worked with and what we’ve created together. From my early days in logistics, where the systems we created still have a significant impact on how freight is moved across the US to the foundation of the Internet we helped build at Lycos to the innovation and change in fast iterations and customer focus we drove across Intuit and many more examples in between and beyond, I am proud of what we accomplished together, what team members have gone on to accomplish, and that I am still so close to so many of these amazing people.
Have you faced any challenges in particular related to being a woman in technology?
Yes. Most of the typical challenges you hear about — being heard and respected — I’ve experienced. I feel lucky that my career started in the sciences at one of the top labs in the world. My experience was that those scientists were more gender neutral, despite not many women being there. This meant I got to gain some confidence and credibility at a critical time without as many challenges. Today, I am amazed at how surprised people are when they figure out I am a nerd — the kind that stays up until 3a watching a computer play a human on live stream while texting friends about the game. Though the conceptions of what nerds are and what women can do are changing, I wish it would change faster, as we would all be in a better place. The saying is “Women hold up half the sky” not “Women hold up specific pieces of part of the sky.”
Who (or what) has had the most impact on your career personally? What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from being a mentor and/or a mentee?
My parents had the most impact on my career. They both taught me the value and honestly joy of working hard. And they encouraged me to make my own decisions. It was hard telling my father I wasn’t going into accounting and they did wonder what I would do with a mathematics degree — remember this was before computers and the nerds who knew about them were cool and self supporting. And they really thought I was crazy for leaving a job in logistics for the internet. Despite this, they always were behind me, so I knew even when I had doubts that worse than failing is not trying.
Wow, biggest lesson from a mentor is tough, as I have many and am grateful for everyone who has taken their time to support me as I’ve grown and continue to grow. Three that stand out… Scott Cook reminding me to take the perspective of the founder, when I was doing a founder transition. Lorrie Norrington telling me to have only three points to any slide I present and make sure they all support what I want the audience to take away from the slide. And Ben Levitan telling me in my first GM job I wasn’t a quarterback any more but a coach.
You spent a few years away from Boston in your previous roles. Did it feel like anything had changed since you left? How has it felt to be back for the last year?
The change has been similar to what most tech is seeing — a move towards the city from the ‘burbs. Kendall Square has experienced tremendous growth and I love having our company based here. Overall, Boston is still wonderful Boston. I love it; I feel like I am with my people. The one thing that hasn’t changed that I wish would change is our reluctance to highlight what we are doing. We have pride in what we are accomplishing, but we don’t megaphone it the way other areas do. We don’t have to go to their extent, but we do need to show the world what is being done in Boston. This is why I think the work y’all are doing at HUBweek is so important. Thanks for giving us a mic! I’ll leave it with how I ended my blog announcing that I had joined Nara Logics… 617>650!
The HUBweek Change-Maker series showcases the most creative and inventive minds in art, science, and technology making an impact in Boston and around the world.