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January 21, 2016


Today, we are announcing co-leading a $1.8m seed investment in Sentenai, an exciting machine learning company based in Boston, alongside our friends at Founder Collective, Project11 as well as a new local seed fund, Hyperplane.
Sentenai is one of those companies attacking a complex problem deep in the bowels of IT infrastructure. The company has developed a way to vastly simplify data infrastructure and database schema development through automated intelligent systems that use behavioral and historical data streams to help companies make better decisions. Their solution allows companies to save valuable time and resources by outsourcing some of the "muck work" of data engineering and eliminating the need to develop a full stack data management infrastructure.
You always hear venture capitalists talk about the two things that compel them to make these crazy seed investments in de novo companies: (1) The Team, and (2) The Market. Not surprisingly, both of these factors were major drivers for us in this case, but particularly because we are passionate about machine learning (a few of our thoughts on the topic are here, here and here) and its potential impact to disrupt how we live, work and play in the coming years.
The Team
We are excited to be in business with co-founders Rohit Gupta and Brendan Kohler. I first met Rohit when he was helping run Techstars Boston, where I'm a small personal investor. He is an MIT guy who came to Techstars after a few stints at startups (and even as a VC associate). As a former Techstars leader, Rohit is very savvy about company-building, having seen so many case studies of startups play out in such a compressed period of time. His co-founder, Brendan, is the technical brains behind Sentenai. After graduating from Georgia Tech and serving as an engineer and programmer at multiple companies, he became a researcher at Yale in the area of distributed systems. While there, he helped start IoT company Seldera, which was later acquired by Ameresco. It was his work at Seldera and Ameresco, as well as advising other companies on how to optimize their data engineering, that inspired Sentenai as he saw the complexities of big data and the cloud play out. He is also an early enthusiast and thought leader in Haskell, a functional programming language that promises to be a exciting new environment for machine learning application development.
The Market 
As I wrote recently in announcing our fourth fund, in today's startup world, the bar is very high for entrepreneurs who have a choice of investors (and the best ones have choices).  VCs, therefore, need to have a strong investment thesis such that when they come across a great team and a great market working on a problem that is consistent with the investment thesis, it makes sense for both sides.
This "meeting of the minds" was clearly the case with Sentenai. We have been early proponents of the growth and applications in Big Data and Machine Learning. Literally 15 minutes into Rohit and Brendan's pitch, I was pulling out some of our own slides that we have written about full stack analytics and comparing notes about our mutual observations about machine learning and the impact of another order of magnitude of additional data becoming available to enterprises in the coming years. We were also able to get the team quickly in front of some of the top technical minds in the field by exposing them to the CTOs of some of our best machine learning companies, like DataXu (machine learning applied to programmatic advertising), ZestFinance (machine learning applied to loan underwriting decisions) and Tracx machine learning applied to social media marketing). Entrepreneurs expect their VCs to be passionate about the area that they're dedicating their lives to and this is certainly one of those cases.
Creating companies from scratch is very, very difficult but if you can work with great teams pursuing a market with a lot of secular trends in your favor, at least you have a fighting chance.


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