Posted:March 20, 2008

Once in a Lifetime

Zitgist LLC

It is Exciting to be a Part of History

I am absolutely thrilled to be joining Zitgist LLC as its new CEO. This courtship has been a while in the making, and some of you knew it was in progress though it did not make sense to talk about it until now. I’ve had the chance to work with exceptional people throughout my career. None — and this is saying a lot — has matched the Zitgist people and this opportunity.

Later posts will discuss future directions and prospects. For now, forgive me for taking a more personal tone to explain what captured my attention with this impressive, young company.

Quests and Sabbaticals

Since my college and grad student days as a plant systematist and population geneticist, I have been fascinated with the structure of information and how it is organized (first in the biological world and then through human culture). I think it is fair to say that my early jobs and the companies I have founded have been dedicated to this passion. I feel especially fortunate to have been an early participant in the growth and development of the Web.

I took a sabbatical a bit over a year ago to research and contemplate the idea of the ‘Semantic Web’, Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of the Web as a medium for data integration and usefulness. While the advent of the early Web had been amazing, its next use as a means for global information interoperability represents a real fulcrum in human history. The semantic Web vision resonates because the power of the Internet and its global reach are clear, and because the accumulation and management of cultural information is the singular basis for the economic wealth and uniqueness of humanity.

If our present reality were only one of access to mind-boggling amounts of information and the ability to manage it, that would be exciting enough. But, with these changes, have also come fundamental changes in the nature of the commercial enterprise, what is its value, and the role of business and social organizations to create future wealth. We are truly in an era of open source, open standards and open data. The abiding aspect of our new era is interoperability and sharing, not closed and proprietary systems.

Many have noted the cultural and social impacts of Gutenberg’s printing press in areas such as the Reformation, Enlightenment, and emergence of secularism and social change. I have no doubt future historians will look to our current era as a similar breakpoint in human development.

My sabbatical was thus not only to learn about this new technological era, but also to think hard about what might be the business models and commercial organizational structures of the future. Over this period I kissed many frogs.

The Company

I found Zitgist to be unique from the standpoints of people, organization, culture and technology. There will be time to elaborate more in future posts regarding Zitgist’s prospects and advantages. For now let me simply say the company has a business model responsive to today’s imperatives and the chops to pull it off.

We’re entering a time of few precedents. I wish I could say with 100% certainty that Zitgist has the secret sauce that ensures success. I can not. But, I can definitely say that Zitgist has a viewpoint, plan, and unique technology and data perspective that looks pretty darn good. (I’m also pleased to announce a major update today to our Zitgist Web site to reflect some of these prospects. Of course, there is more to come. ;) ).

Semantic Web ventures have a real challenge in figuring out how to monetize value while remaining true to the core principles of openness and collaboration. (And, oh, by the way, also to keep it simple.) Zitgist, I believe, brings a winning perspective to these challenges.

The People

The best way I know to manage uncertainty is to with great people. The super thing of the semantic Web is its community of smart, dedicated people. Within that group, Zitgist and its people stand out. Three deserve mention by name.

My first attraction to Zitgist came through its chief technology officer, Frédérick Giasson. I have had the great fortune to have worked with a few natural programmers in my career. Fred certainly is a member of that rarefied group. But more unusual and attractive from my viewpoint is Fred’s clear vision and pragmatism.

Going back to his original forays with Talk Digger and Ping the Semantic Web, Fred has looked to clever ways to combine available constructs into practical tools. He co-founded Zitgist about 18 months ago to bring that same pragmatic view to what we are now calling Linked Data. Fred has also clearly understood that the expansion of the semantic Web market depends on simple and direct user interfaces and hiding the technicalities of RDF and other details in the background.

Independent of Zitgist, Fred and I had already been collaborating as co-editors of the UMBEL lightweight subject concept ontology (Fred is also an editor of three other ontologies). When Fred separately showed me zLinks as a WordPress plug-in, even though only a proof-of-concept, the latent power of turning any existing hyperlink into a portal of Linked Data and relevant content literally blew me away.

Our discussions thus broadened last September and were the fuel that led to my joining Zitgist. I confidently predict Fred will emerge as one of the leading voices in the next generation of semantic Web innovators.

Zitgist’s other co-founder is Kingsley Idehen, president and CEO of OpenLink Software. Anyone who knows Kingsley knows he is truly a force of nature.

Going back more than 10 years Kingsley and his team have been building a universal platform for hosting and managing and converting data, Virtuoso. It is uncanny how this suite of existing capabilities so nearly perfectly presaged the semantic Web. It is also remarkable — and unbelievable how little appreciated today — that Virtuoso also contains capabilities in its Sponger, RDF Views for RDB data, ODS and complete “data space” integration capabilities that presage the semantic Web of ten years hence.

Kingsley’s singular vision has driven this development, backed by the technical excellence of Orri Erling and the other nearly 50 members of the OpenLink team. Moreover, this team understands scalability, distributed architectures and virtual (“cloud”) computing. These capabilities provide both a solid foundation and a deep reservoir for Zitgist to draw upon as its services scale to meet the demands of the full Web.

Kingsley has been able to translate this internal vision to a shared one in the broader semantic Web community. He has been a key leader of the Linked Data initiative and has tirelessly networked and advocated within the community. After his long labors in the garden, it is exciting to see the bountiful harvest now come to fruition. It is also gratifying to see Kingsley get the growing recognition he so richly deserves.

How can one not choose to work with such a great team?

Since I first began starting my own companies I have thought I could never join a venture that was not of my own creation. Vision is a tricky thing and so very hard to get right. But the synergy arising from this interaction points to a new model of virtual ventures drawing upon a global pool of like-minded collaborators.

It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contribute to Zitgist and the vibrant Linked Data movement of which it is a part. Thanks, to all of you for this opportunity. Now . . . it is time to roll up the sleeves and help make a new era happen.

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Once in a Lifetime

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It is Exciting to be a Part of History I am absolutely thrilled to be joining Zitgist LLC as its new CEO. This courtship has been a while in the making, and some of you knew it was in progress though it did not make sense to talk about it until now. I’ve had the […]

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4 thoughts on “Once in a Lifetime

  1. Sounds exciting, are you going to be hiring anytime soon?

    I’m particularly curious to hear what you and Zitgist think about freebase versus or as part of the semantic web.

  2. Mike,
    Congratulations and think of it as a transversal alignment with what you have always been doing. Your prolific writing here taxes my ability to keep up with your wealth of knowledge and that which is derived from your business network. Hopefully you will still post to this, my favorite blog.
    Sincerely,
    John Wubbel

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