05 November 2013

Exalead: very recherché

With its “connect the dots” tagline, Exalead is one of Europe’s most successful search companies to emerge in the last decade or so, and is ranked fourth among the world’s most-used web search engines. Largely focusing on the strategic business of enterprise search, the company has nevertheless explored the whole search space, from desktop and web search through to multimedia and voice search in some of its Lab projects. We see three good reasons for underscoring the “lead” in Exalead which, among other awards, was an LT-Innovate prize winner in 2012.

Semantic Vision
Exalead was founded in 2000 by two young computer scientists who wanted to build no less than the best and most comprehensive search engine from scratch. They heard the call of semantic technology before many others and decided to develop their own technology over the long term, ending up with a Semantic Factory that automates the whole process of aligning and enriching heterogeneous mixes of data. They also foresaw the need for searches over multimedia content, from video to voice, which has meant considerable investment into research as well as development.

The business vision paid off: in 2010 they were acquired by Dassault Systèmes (now known as 3DS) for around €150M. Their task was to round off the 3D design software company’s product lifetime management portfolio with a powerful search engine for the huge documentation and parts databases that underpin very large engineering projects such as airliners or nuclear power plants. But this move also gave Exalead access to 3DS’ database of over 115,000 customers.

Exalead now has a staff of 150 and a number of products and solutions that enable other industries such as healthcare, defence and finance or organisations such as contact centres to embed powerful search capabilities into very large data silos and then link them altogether to discover new insights.

The Exalead Ecosystem
As The Rude Baguette has shown in an excellent recent news story (to which this post is deeply indebted), Exalead has acted as a major incubator for twenty or so successful Paris-area start-ups. They have all been launched by former Exalead engineers in the past decade. Some of these businesses operate in the video or related search space but most of these younger companies draw in some way on Exalead’s strong culture of semantic technology skills. They obviously knew how to pick ambitious software engineers!

Today, Exalead is sufficiently resourced to continue with its own applied research agenda in a number of fields under the leadership of Chief Science Officer Gregory Grefenstette, who joined the company in 2008 after a distinguished career as an NLP researcher in the US and Europe. Exalead contributes to the open source community, develops innovative solutions to outstanding search problems, and above all has provided much of the inspiration and expertise for the €200M Quaero.

With its Latin for “I search” name, the largely Franco-German Quaero seems very much an emanation of Exalead’s original vision of seeing the universe of content through the eye of a search engineer. Its five areas of focus are personalized, multi-device distribution of video; better targeting for advertising; and multimedia search for the Web, all using the Exalead search engine.

Some of these application fields will presumably see products, apps or solutions emerging from the Quaero consortium – especially as the R&D phase is due to end in December this year. This means that the technology development process can begin. It’s worth noting that the project’s Voxalead application has already won three awards including a META 2nd Prize for outstanding audio visual search and transcription software and services in 2011. So it will be interesting to see which Quaero outcomes Exalead itself will productise in the next few years.

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