Executive Success: From high tech to simple words



Originally featured on: The New Zealand Herald


Venture promises to turn masses of data into natural language.


The ideas Matt Gould talks about veer into the stuff of science fiction, but they're likely to be commonplace in the next five years, he says.

The 47-year-old is chief strategy officer for artificial intelligence company Arria NLG, which turns masses of data into meaningful written reports using patented natural language generation technology.

Imagine going into a hospital room, he says, your loved one unresponsive in bed, with a clipboard, or increasingly now, a tablet, at one end.

"You're filled with questions. What's happened? How are they? Are they going to get better? What problems have they got? What can I expect?" he says.

"Weirdly, all of the answers to all of your questions are in that chart on the end of the bed," says Gould.

"They're all there, everything that has happened to that person is there and all the information needed to make a prognosis about how they're going to be is in those numbers, but they're just charts and tables.

"You can't get your questions answered until an expert comes in the room, until a nurse comes in, the doctor, the specialist.

"They might pick up that chart and they might have had nothing to do with your loved one before, but they will translate that data, those numbers and charts and dashboards.

"That explanation bit, that expertise applied to the data communicated to a non-expert in language, that's what we do.

"Explaining stuff." And it's fast.




Weather reports that took hours to prepare are done in less than a second using the Arria technology.

The next step could be weather reports personalised to your exact location and daily plans, says Gould.

The technology, developed over 30 years by academics at the University of Aberdeen, can be applied to any situation where complex data needs to be interpreted, so the challenge for the firm is to retain some focus on specific industries.

It has clients in oil and gas platform management, banking, accounting firms, media companies and business process outsourcers.

Gould says this year is the tipping point for the company, which listed on the AIM, the London Stock Exchange's alternative market, in 2013.

On one front, it will be launching a data analysis tool to link with the accounting packages commonly used by small to medium-sized businesses.

Currently in beta mode, Recount promises to explain financial data in an easily accessible way.

"There will be a few [accountants] that go 'hold on, we used to charge that company $350 every six weeks to go in and give them advice and write a five page report and now for $35 they can get that same report direct from the data'.

"To which the answer is: OK, that was always going to happen, so why not promote the product, take a dollar and become part of that ecosystem?" Gould says Arria will also be making its technology available as a developer tool, to allow businesses to generate narrative reports from their own data.

He says the challenges in developing a business strategy for a tech start-up are no different to those he faced as chief strategy officer at technology company HP, operating out of the professional services division in the United States.

"They might have a few less zeros on them but they're the same." In either circumstance it's not that complicated, he says - ensure you're delivering services that allow companies to do what they're doing at a better margin.

"The strategic quotient is where do you put the resources to get the best effect the fastest?"

Though Arria's head office is in London, Gould spends as much time as possible in New Zealand, working mostly from his home office in Greenhithe.

For part of the year his wife and three young boys relocate with him to Aberdeen, but otherwise it's frequent commuter flights to London, all done in economy class.

"It's not my money, it's shareholders' money," he says.

The company was founded by New Zealander Brian Henry - founder of NZX-listed Diligent Board Member Services - and his brother Gerald, who remain major shareholders.

It's been a bumpy ride for any investors who bought into the start-up's IPO.

The stock, which listed at £1, briefly hit highs of £2.82 before sliding all the way into the single digits 18 months later.

Its share price now hovers around the 20p mark.

Gould has been on board since the University of Aberdeen began looking to commercialise its technology, when he was invited to take a look by old friend and former Diligent executive Simon Small.

"It's like any Kiwi story - I knew a guy." Gould was immediately interested.

"Lots of people come up with ideas for apps and services and stuff, but to be part of a fundamental technology shift, I said: 'we've got to get this'."

He says the University of Aberdeen deal meant a listing needed to follow within 18 months, which also gives Arria a degree of legitimacy with potential clients, particularly large US-based companies.

At the time the firm did kick tyres at the NZX and Gould doesn't rule out a further listing on a local exchange.

"We've already said to the market we are looking at the NZX and ASX again and we'll continue to do that."



Subscribe to the Arria Blog