Meta Search Has a Killer Product — Here's Why It Decided to Get Acquired

In the fall of 2015, we introduced you to an intriguing new Boston startup called Meta Search. What it essentially does is let you search for files across all of your cloud accounts (Drive, Dropbox, Evernote and Gmail), as well as your desktop — which is, surprisingly, something that hadn’t really been done before at that point.

The startup had won the 2015 SheStarts SheDemos pitch competition and raised over $500,000 in seed funding from a group comprising mostly of alumni from the founders’ alma mater, Williams College. While the product was super useful, there was a question of what else Meta could build and how to make it a stronger business.

A little more than a year after we last covered Meta, that question has now been answered: it has been acquired by another Boston-area startup called Diffeo that operates in a very similar space. Meta and Diffeo jointly announced the acquisition on Tuesday, with Meta being renamed to Diffeo Cloud Search as a result. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Founded in 2012, Diffeo acts as a research assistant that displays recommendations for desktop files and web pages related to what you’re writing in a document. Called the Advanced Discovery Toolbox, the goal for the “collaborative machine intelligence tool” is to help researchers accelerate their work by uncovering key connections between subjects mentioned in your document, such as people, places and events. It also builds a dynamic graph showing you all of their relationships.

Diffeo was founded by John Frank, Max Kleiman-Weiner and Dan Roberts and had grown out of a project they worked on together called the Text Retrieval Conference Knowledge Base Acceleration project for the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Jason Briggs, co-founder and CEO of Meta, told me as its cloud search project went into beta last year, one feature he and his co-founders wanted to add was the ability to give users recommendations on files they might need based on their past and current activity. While Meta was aiming to make its search product a paid offering, Briggs and his co-founders were hoping to have a bigger feature like this to bring in more money.

"To really build a venture-scale business, we needed a higher tier than that."

“To really build a venture-scale business, we needed a higher tier than that,” Briggs said of Meta’s cloud search tool.

However, as they found out, adding the recommendation feature ended up being a lot more difficult because of the amount of research necessary for a machine learning project like that, Briggs said.

As Meta was dealing with these questions of how to move forward and whether to make a big investment in building its own recommendation engine, Frank, one of Diffeo’s co-founders had been serving as an adviser for the startup. Meta was introduced to Frank, who was formerly chier search architect at Nokia, through one of its investors who knew that Meta and Diffeo were working in a similar space.

Come last fall, Meta and Diffeo both entered into a competition run by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency called the Disparate Data Challenge. The challenge called for participating companies to “unearth innovative ways of retrieving and analyzing data in different locations, formats, schemas and interfaces.” While the two startups entered the competition separately, they emerged in the finals as a combined entity. So what happened?

After the first round, Briggs said the two teams started talking about how they could work together since they were working in such a similar space. They ended up reaching a verbal agreement that Diffeo would acquire for Meta. One reason, Briggs said, was because Diffeo’s product was very similar to the recommendation engine Meta was exploring. It also made sense for the two startups to combine their resources since they were both experiencing traction and working in a similar space.

“We were building similar products that were converging down the line. That was the driving force that really made us do it," Briggs said, adding that Meta had up to 1,500 active users before getting acquired," Briggs said. "The fact that they’re still growing, we’re still growing and together we can have a much strong product offering.”

"We were building similar products that were converging down the line."

Though it caused some confusion for NGIS — which supports both the Department of Defense and the U.S. Intelligence Community — Diffeo and Meta’s combined demonstration led them to take first place for the Disparate Data Challenge and win a $25,000 cash prize. From there, the two startups finalized the deal.

Now that Diffeo has acquired Meta, the combined entity has 16 employees working in Cambridge, with Meta’s Cloud Search being offered for $10 a month per user as the starting tier. Diffeo’s Advanced Discovery Toolbox, which includes Cloud Search, costs $150 a month per user.

Diffeo’s customer base mostly comprises of intelligence analysts at government agencies who need an easy and intuitive way to unearth connections between different entities they’re researching. The startup is also beginning to target financial analysts working at investment banks who need to have the same abilities for different reasons.

Frank told me that Diffeo is currently putting together a seed investment round that will be announced at a later time. According to a Form D filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in December, Diffeo has raised $2.1 million for the round from six investors so far. The filing indicates Diffeo could raise as much as $3 million total.

Caption for featured image: Col. DiPaolo, United States Air Force; Jason Briggs, former CEO and co-founder at Meta Search, VP of operations and business development at Diffeo; John Frank, CEO and co-founder at Diffeo; Aaron Taylor, former CTO and co-founder at Meta Search, director of cloud services at Diffeo; Emily Pavilni, former COO and co-founder at Meta Search, product manager at Diffeo; Geoffery Milstein, VP of federal at Diffeo.

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