Shiri Dori-Hacohen was a doctoral student at the UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences (CICS) in 2016 when she entered the Innovation Challenge, sponsored by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at the UMass Isenberg School of Management. The Innovation Challenge is an annual series of competitions that take place over the course of a full academic year, designed to assist aspiring entrepreneurs to pursue and develop marketable ideas and products. With the support of Professor James Allan, her CICS advisor, Dori-Hacohen entered the competition and won $35,000 in seed money for her initiative to automatically detect controversy in online discourse. Her winning initiative ultimately became her startup, AuCoDe (pronounced “oh-code”), the newest member of the CDS Industry Affiliates Program.
Why did you decide to join the CDS Industry Affiliates Program?
We heard great things from another industry affiliate partner, Lexalytics, who spoke very highly of the program. And of course, we've known [Executive Director] Brant Cheikes, [Director] Andrew McCallum, and [Technical Director of Community Initiatives] Matt Rattigan for years. But what really sealed the deal for us was the opportunity to participate in the Industry Mentorship Program. We saw what a great value it is to work with UMass students who are so talented and have a research mindset and fresh ideas.
Tell us more about your partnership with CDS.
Last year, we participated in Data Science for the Common Good (DS4CG), on a project to detect COVID-19 misinformation online, and we were thrilled with the results. We found a lot of invigorating novel technologies that were cutting-edge and really close to the newest neural net technologies. The students brought a lot of energy and hard work to tackle a problem that we might not have had the chance to address if not for DS4CG, because our funding generally is towards commercialization. But in this case, we were able to tackle a social impact problem that is not directly related to our bottom line, but is the type of problem that we really want to address. After the summer was over, one of the students continued to work with us in an independent study, and we are looking to publish a paper on this unique COVID-19 data set that we created.
It sounds like you’ve hired several UMass alums or students.
Yes! Our Vice President of Research & Development is Dr. Keen Sung, who is a recent alum of the CICS doctoral program. I’ve known him for years, since we were graduate students together, and it was really the best hire we could possibly have wished for. We also have JengYu Chou, an undergraduate student currently interning with us as a software developer, who has been doing a fantastic job, and we were fortunate to get funding from an NSF SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grant to hire both of them. And my co-founder Julian Lustig-Gonzalez is an Isenberg alum.
It's a no-brainer to hire UMass alums because I know how high the standards are, and I know what quality of education they're coming from. I know that their training is among the best, and I can rest assured knowing that I've hired really good people.
What are some of the funding sources that have helped propel AuCoDe to success?
After the initial seed funding from winning the Innovation Challenge, we applied for and received an NSF SBIR Phase I, and later Phase II, award. We have received over one million dollars to date—the Phase I was about $250,000, the Phase II was $750,000. It also comes with a wide variety of supplemental funding that we're right now in the process of unlocking, such as the industry partnership element—if we partner with established companies in the field, then we receive more funding. And there's a matching program—so in the future, when we raise venture funding, NSF is willing to match at a 2:1 ratio up to a certain cap, and that would give us access to another half a million dollars funding. We are extremely grateful for this generous support by the NSF. It's really everybody's tax dollars at work, funding our work and our company, because the SBIR has a mandate for U.S. job creation and economic stimulus.
What would you say to someone at another small company or startup about why they should partner with CDS?
CDS has such a wide variety of expertise and talent, and they're willing to work with you for what you need, and what's going to be most helpful for your company. So whether that's talent pipeline, or new fresh ideas that you need on an extra challenging project, CDS is so flexible and willing to accommodate, and very open and transparent about what they can and can't provide. From our perspective, even just opening the conversation and saying, look, this is who we are, this is what our constraints are, can you work with us to make this happen? And Brant and Matt came with a very open mind and said, let's see how we can make this work ... through our grant, and through the direct membership in the Industry Affiliates Program, we were able to find a level at which we could sign up, and would be comfortable with our budget constraints.
The other thing that I would add is that a lot of companies aren't familiar with the funding mechanisms for SBIR and I highly recommend [learning them] for any startup or young company. It doesn't even have to be small companies—any company that has fewer than 500 employees is eligible for these grants. And so collaborating with UMass and applying for these grants can be an incredible source of funding for up-and-coming startups and young companies, or even established companies that are small. I think that it's a really incredible resource. If you're doing something that's technologically challenging, especially if you’re partnering with CDS, then you may well be in the running for this kind of grant and it's totally worth looking into.
How did you first get interested in computer science?
I first learned how to program when I was seven or eight—I subscribed to a magazine called 3-2-1 Contact, and there was an article about BASIC that caught my attention. I was very lucky that my dad knew how to program, so with his help I programmed a game in BASIC based on the guidance from 3-2-1 Contact. And then later in a gifted program, I also got to program with Logo. But funny enough, I didn't think of myself as a computer scientist. When I went into my undergraduate studies in Israel, I had to pick a major and I wanted to study philosophy or history, and my mom said, “Pick something practical—you like computers, don't you?” And so that's how I landed in computer science. It wasn't until years later, when I really reflected on my interests, that I remembered that I had actually learned how to program as a kid. And I think that there are a lot of boys who get taught to program and see that as part of their development. And later when they become tech professionals, they say, “I learned to program when I was 12.” And it wasn't until years later that I realized that I did too! I think that as a woman, there's sort of this need to distance yourself from geekdom and being too smart. And in hindsight, I realized that the passion was there all along and it was kind of dormant for a bit.
What advice do you have for student entrepreneurs, having been one yourself?
UMass has several incredible programs. One is the iCorps @ UMass training that you can do on campus. And then, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship, and the Innovation Challenge that they sponsor, are an incredible resource. I can't recommend them warmly enough because they're the testing ground for your ideas. The feedback that you're going to get from real professionals and experts in the industry is just invaluable—not to mention the prize money, which in our case launched us to where we are today. And then—it's a little cliche, but think outside the box in terms of what you focus your energy on. Your advisor or your mentors might say you should only be thinking about research papers, but sometimes it can be useful to look outside of that realm. And if you are interested in startups, there are a lot of problems that need solutions. If you open your eyes wide enough, you're probably going to find quite a few problems that need solutions that you have the technical know-how to provide. And whether that means partnering with folks from the business school or going out on your own, there are so many opportunities out there and there is so much need. I think that the world is your oyster in a sense. Just go for it.