Durham start-up looks to capitalize on automatic story writing software

Mar. 09, 2014 @ 11:09 PM

A computer program that can do the same thing as a sports journalist.

That’s the idea behind what Durham-based tech start-up CEO Robbie Allen said was his original vision when he started working on the program about seven years ago.

He wanted to create software that automatically turns sports data into written stories that would be indistinguishable from stories written by human hands.

When he started, he said he was also working full-time for the technology company Cisco Systems Inc. Now he is chief executive of Automated Insights, a 25-person, Durham-based company behind software used to automate the creation of sports stories, as well as stories about finance or real estate trends, or to generate useful insights for businesses about sales. The company is operating in the field of “big data,” which Allen said is a buzzword in technology today.

The company is not looking to replace men with machines, Allen said, but instead is looking to create content where it didn’t exist before. For example, he said the company has created weekly, personalized recaps for Yahoo Sports Fantasy Football participants for the past two years.

“No journalist on the planet” would want to write that many stories for such a specific audience, he said, adding that personalization is seen as a key area for the company.

Allen said the company automated about 300 million stories last year. This year, he said they’re looking to increase that number to more than a billion.

He did not release specific financial information, but he did say that it say that the company saw triple digit year-over-year revenue growth last year, and he’s expecting to see that continue this year. In private investment dollars, the company has raised more than $5.3 million to-date, he said.

In part to try to attract potential new investors, the company is expected to travel to California in April for a Demo Day held by Google for Entrepreneurs. The company was announced as one of two businesses from the Triangle that won an all-expense-paid trip to California to make pitches to investors and others.

The competition was open to companies connected to the Google for Entrepreneurs’ tech hub in the area, according to a news release. There is a location of Google’s tech network at the American Underground, a hub for entrepreneurs that has office locations in Durham and in Raleigh.

 “I’m looking to blow some peoples’ socks off,” Allen said of the trip. He confirmed that company is looking for new private investments, but declined to name exactly how much they want to raise. He said the company is looking to add potentially as many as 20 more people this year.

And in May, he said company will move its headquarters from about 4,000 square feet on Creekstone Drive to about 7,250 square feet on the fourth floor of one of the Diamond View buildings that overlook the Durham Bulls Athletic Park. The buildings are owned by the same company that owns the American Tobacco Campus. A spokesman for the property said the company will take space originally leased by Duke University.

Allen said the company needed a bigger space, and he was looking for a location that had access to good places to eat and that had a good vibe. He said the company’s office culture is very important. He looks to create a place where people want to come to work on Monday.

“I worked at a big company for 15 years,” he said. “I learned a lot about what I don’t like.”

Allen said he offers his employees flexible hours, there is no set vacation limit, lunch is provided daily, and the office is equipped with a ping-pong table, foosball table, dart board and gaming system.

Mitch Fortner, 30, was employee No. 8 at Automated Insights. He said he’s a content architect there, which means he helps write the verbal language that goes into the computer program to create the automated sports, real estate or finance stories. He said that involves thinking about probable scenarios that could result from any sports game across an entire season – such as if a particular player scores a significant amount, or if the game is a blowout or if it was a buzzer beater.

He said that with automation, there can be “a lot of noise.” He said they could spit out content or data mindlessly about anything, but they try to find insights from the data.

Fortner went into the field as a journalist, and contrasted the difficulty of finding a good job in the traditional media industry with working at a technology start-up. Previously, he said he worked as a journalist for online publications out of college.

“For me, (I went) from this industry where I felt like I made a wrong choice and I only had an English degree, to working in cutting edge technology at a young start-up,” he said.