Link Ventures and its data-driven accelerator, Cogo Labs, were founded eleven years ago by Dave Blundin. A graduate of MIT and a serial entrepreneur and investor, he has been described in venture capital circles as a “visionary person” with “the ability to spot important trends and an ability to create novel solutions to problems.” That description — which coincided with Dave’s pre-Y2K recognition as one of MIT Technology Review’s “Innovators Under 35” — remains particularly apt in the world of big data.
The most recent issue of TR notes that “Marvin Minsky called words that carry a variety of meanings ‘suitcase words.’” “Big data” may be just such a term, but there is no question regarding Dave’s longstanding interest in the field. As an undergraduate Computer Science student in MIT’s AI Lab, he had the opportunity to work in the “annex,” where he had access to all of Minsky’s writings — both personal and professional. Inspired by that exposure to “the father of artificial intelligence,” Dave programmed some of the largest scale neural networks of the time. In fact, his first entrepreneurial success used his invention of a new neural network algorithm to read handwriting, interpret x-ray images, and predict retail demand for consumer products.
Fast forward to today, when internal estimates count Dave among the handful of Boston-area investors who are collectively funding over eighty percent of the big data internet activity in the New England market. The string of Dave’s (and Link’s) successful investments — both internal and external — include names like DataSage, TripAdvisor, CourseAdvisor, Autotegrity, and CarGurus.
Yet despite all those successes — and the liquidity they have brought — those who have worked with Dave within Cogo still find him to be “extremely hands on, . . . deep into the data and . . . conversant in the technology.” That same impression is shared among the leaders of Link’s portfolio companies, like Ted Chan of CareDash. The head of the country’s third largest (and gaining) doctor review site, he describes it in these words: “Dave has one of the most interesting ways of exploring opportunities I have ever seen. It’s part totally greenfield, part deeply data-driven/analytical, and part ‘here’s how it ties and is similar to other great companies that have been built.’ That makes opportunities verifiable, and creates a rough roadmap at the same time.”
For Dave, that approach can be traced back to the late 1990s, when one of DataSage’s retail client relationships gave him access to what was then the largest non-military database in the world. With clickstream data still a novel concept to many, Dave saw then the tremendous opportunity presented by the ability to capture and analyze online consumer behavior. He realized that big data could be used to cut through the inefficiency of most advertising, and that the trend toward one-to-one marketing was not going to end. Dave’s founding (and exit) of CourseAdvisor proved out the model, and he has been replicating it ever since through Link Ventures. Now, in 2017, the amount of consumer data Cogo Labs gathers each day exceeds the total size of that late-nineties database which helped spawn Dave’s vision.
As online advertising surpasses its offline counterparts, the proliferation of one-to-one marketing platforms (like Google DoubleClick AdX and other real-time bidding channels) confirms the trend Dave spotted well over a decade ago. With the Link portfolio now focused on internet marketplaces for insurance, jobs and dozens of other data-tested verticals, he offers this insight: “We’ve discovered that we can continue our string of successes and maximize our odds of discovering the next Facebook without significant cannibalization between the two approaches. It’s an interesting story and a unique approach.”
Matt Rita, a Link Ventures partner and one of Dave’s contemporaries at MIT, recently came across an old booklet containing some short student biographies. “Dave’s blurb from his sophomore year said that he’d rather be ‘destitute trying to achieve greatness than mediocre trying to achieve mediocrity.’” Thirty-plus years later, with Dave’s status as a big data visionary well known in and around Cambridge, Matt quips: “The mediocrity option appears to be off the table.”