Clever Sense: Creating Context Out of Chaos

Redmond, Wash. — Feb. 28, 2011 — Clever Sense, a Microsoft BizSpark One startup, is making smartphones truly smart by enabling real-time, context-aware serendipity.

Clever Sense co-founders Babak Pahlavan (left) and Nima Asgharbeygi share a rare moment of downtime after pitching Seymour at the BizSpark One Summit in Mountain View, Calif., October 27, 2010.

Babak Pahlavan, the president and CEO of Clever Sense, just launched the first product that delivers on his vision of harnessing the power of the smartphone and the cloud to deliver the precise personalized information users need to make choices at any place and at any time. Whether it is finding an affordable, romantic, Romanian restaurant in Brooklyn, or knowing which eco-tourist adventure is right for you, Clever Sense applies artificial intelligence to create exclusive search results for customers.

The technology behind the Clever Sense platform makes sense of the real world by harvesting and sifting through the vast amount of information on the Web to deliver the right information to users in the right context as they look for local places, events, deals and other items.

Seymour is available on Windows Phone 7, and releases for iPhone and Android are expected.

Pahlavan and his co-founder, Nima Asgharbeygi, bootstrapped Clever Sense during its first two years of operations. To hear Pahlavan tell it, the men wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Building stuff has always been my main passion,” says Pahlavan. “I had those Lego sets that you could put together and actually create things like working helicopters or an engine. As clichéd as it sounds, computers just fascinated me in a whole new way.”

When other kids were hanging out and playing soccer, Pahlavan was on the computer. While watching television one day during his middle school years in Iran, he saw a demo of IBM Dragon. The speech-reconition software wasn’t available in Farsi, Pahlavan’s native language, so he and a friend set out to correct that minor problem. About 16,000 or so lines of code later, the 15-year-old had built a Farsi version of Dragon and knew what he wanted to do in life: make computers understand what human beings wanted.

That persistent boy leapt back out years later when the concept of Clever Sense began percolating between Pahlavan and Asgharbeygi. “There was never a moment when I thought, ‘I’ve got to go and build this personalized recommendation engine,’” says Pahlavan. “It was basically a notion that there was a need to make smartphones understand more about what humans wanted, that they needed to be more knowledgeable about the things people want to do — more like a companion, a friend that is available anytime, anywhere.”

Pahlavan and Asgharbeygi are well matched with their talents: Pahlavan is a large-scale-data guru and Asgharbeygi can make machines learn almost anything. Though realizing the vision for Clever Sense took more time and resources than they ever imagined, the two men are still as passionate about it as the day they first put together a winning presentation for the platform during a campus competition at Stanford University in 2008. Both men juggled full-time jobs and continued studies during the first months of Clever Sense — and without venture capital funding.

“We were introduced to venture capitalists as winners of the competition,” Pahlavan says, “but it didn’t go as well as it could have with them. It never does, and I don’t think it should because building a startup is such a difficult thing. Every day is a humbling experience and you learn something new. I thought it would take us six months to build Seymour, but it took us two years with our own money to get to a point where we could really gain the respect and interest of investors.”

Networking, says Pahlavan, is everything to a startup. He found his lead investor, Farzad Naimi, through an advisor at Stanford, who made a simple, friendly introduction that turned into an investment in Clever Sense more than a year later. “I was told that behind every entrepreneur’s success, there are about 100 failures. It sounds mundane, but it’s true. The trick is to adapt and learn from the failures.”

Advisors, then, are crucial to Clever Sense’s success. “You need people to help you think stuff through and validate — or invalidate — your hypothesis,” says Pahlavan. “You’ve got to listen, process the information and take whatever you think is relevant, but be able to communicate your perspective as well. Startups need a collective set of brains that are all moving in the same direction even as they debate and argue along the way.”

Access to knowledgeable advisors was the primary reason Clever Sense joined the Microsoft BizSpark program. Running a Mac shop, Pahlavan and Asgharbeygi were impressed by the support they were receiving from Microsoft. When they learned about BizSpark, they took advantage of the software and additional support the program provided.

Clever Sense offers Seymour, an artificial intelligence-based, context-aware personal concierge.

“I got to know more and more about the program, and I installed Windows virtualization tool, Parallel, on our Mac computers,” Pahlavan says. “Then we saw Windows Phone 7 and it just felt like you could build something beautiful on this new platform. We were able to focus on a small set of users with it and establish a relationship with Microsoft, which has been pretty helpful so far.”

Selected as a BizSpark One company in 2010, Clever Sense received the opportunity to work with a Windows Phone 7 device before any competitors. “The exposure you receive through the BizSpark programs is extremely helpful. And I genuinely feel that they want to see Clever Sense succeed. There’s a human relationship there that changed our perspective on Microsoft completely. This notion of being developer- and startup-friendly, at least in our case, has been very, very true.”

Pahlavan’s combination of tireless persona and childhood passion is paying off as Clever Sense continues to take advantage of the opportunities that sometimes seem mystifying at first. Far beyond its early bootstrapping days, the company recently landed more than $1.6 million in funding and is currently a hot commodity for potential investors.

“If you get offered an opportunity to do something different and be disruptive,” he says, “you should take it. A lot of people might not, but that’s a key reason why Clever Sense is successful. Don’t be afraid to stray from the norm and do something different.”

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