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Woofound wants to help personalize the web

Middle River startup building new visual way of connecting people with like interests, preferences

By Gus G. Sentementes, The Baltimore Sun

5:00 PM EDT, June 15, 2012

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The idea for Woofound came to Joshua Spears while he struggled to plan a blind date. He was looking for things to do and places to eat that matched his and his date's tastes and preferences in a personal way. But there was no app for that.

So he and friend Dan Sines, with the fearless ambition typical of 20-somethings, decided last year to build it after hashing out their ideas during a night of fervent instant-messaging.

With the release of the Woofound iPhone app this month, the young company took its first big step into a competitive, cutting edge, and sometimes controversial segment of the digital economy: web personalization. Companies such as Google, Facebook and Pandora are working overtime to help improve the Internet experience for users, offering personalized results — from song preferences to friend connections.

"Our biggest competition is this antiquated way of searching," Spears said. "The era now is focused on personalization. Technology is supplementing your life."

Sines and Spears, both 24, think their approach with Woofound — which incorporates artificial intelligence, algorithms and images — could one day help people use the Internet to find what they're looking for in a restaurant, career, college roommate, business partner or lover. Their ideas have attracted investors who have pumped nearly $1.2 million into the company.

The Woofound approach is simple: The user is shown a series of images and has to decide if the images are "Me" or "Not me." Within minutes, the app learns a user's preferences, and the more one plays the visual game, the more it learns about one's likes and dislikes.

Using what it learns about the user and the user's location, the Woofound app offers relevant information and suggestions. It displays Polaroid-like snapshots of restaurants, events, attractions and other activities and places that fit a user's interests. The user can thumb through the snapshots and, for example, find a restaurant, make a reservation by phone and share plans with friends.

It's meant to be more precise than the needle-in-a-haystack searching for things to do on typical search engines.

"Now you've got more than a trillion web pages," said Bamshad Mobasher, computer science professor and the director of the Center for Web Intelligence at DePaul University in Chicago. "The information is much more complex. The need for filtering has increased, and it's increasing."

Founded in April last year, Woofound is based out of a refurbished garage in Middle River, near Martin State Airport. The company has all the trappings of a startup: plush couches; pingpong and foosball tables; walls painted with whiteboard paint for writing algorithms; and young workers huddled over laptops.

But the company also has an uncommon job position for a tech startup: head of psychology. That role is filled by Noreen Honeycutt, a psychoanalyst and associate clinical professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore.

Honeycutt helped develop the image-based assessment tool that underpins Woofound. While other standardized personality and preference tests can take an hour or more to administer, Woofound cuts the time to under five minutes, Honeycutt said. Part of the point is to keep the app fun and interesting, and not make users feel like they're being tested, she said.

"Each individual is very unique," Honeycutt said. "That's what I like about Woofound — it's not cookie-cutter. No two users would have an identical personality profile."

The company also hired Andrea Witkin, a professor of social welfare at the University of Southern California, to measure Woofound against similar assessment tests. Witkin said Woofound combines the theories of other tests, such as the Strong Interest Inventory and Myers-Briggs, but uses images instead of text-based testing.

"It's the first-ever online one that I've seen that uses a visual tracker as opposed to a standard question-and-answer format," Witkin said.

Building an app is often the easy part. What's harder is getting it noticed among the hundreds of thousands that have proliferated in the iPhone and Android mobile application storefronts.

The good news for Woofound is that it has some time and money to make a business out of its developing technology. The startup is using the nearly $1.2 million in early stage capital to hire employees — 16 so far, invest in technology and focus on developing new markets.

Among the company's first investors was Ken Holt, a retired Morgan Stanley Smith Barney executive and Republican who ran for Baltimore County executive and lost to Democrat Kevin Kamenetz two years ago.

Sines was the media director for Holt's political campaign, and Holt said he was impressed enough to encourage Sines to launch a tech startup. Sines and Spears went to him with the Woofound idea, and he invested in it and brought in other investors.

Holt, now Woofound's chief financial officer, is helping lead a startup at a time in his career when many of his peers are taking it easy on the golf course in retirement.

"It's absolutely the best thing I've ever done in my life," said Holt, 60. "After a very long period in the corporate world and the political world, I just reached a point where that sort of middle chunk of my life was rewarding and satisfying, but it wasn't nearly enough. I was ready to be a part of a great challenge, so I threw in with them."

In the coming months, Woofound plans to partner with the University of Maryland, Baltimore County to develop a version of the app to help match students to careers.

Sines and Spears see Woofound technology permeating the college campus experience, from matching careers and roommates to finding clubs and activities on campus that match a student's preferences. They call it their "scholastic module."

The company also has plans for modules that would target other industries.

"Woofound at its core is a matching engine that quickly learns about user personality and preference," Sines said. "We're designed to cut through the clutter. We want to show people things that are truly relevant to them."

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