6 Questions: One-on-One with Chul Lee, founder and CTO, Thoora

The company's first test in making social media useful for business was the Olympics.

Brawn isn’t the only thing that will get ranked at the Vancouver Olympics. A brainy news engine will be tested at the global event by Thoora, a start-up that began two years ago as a University of Toronto project and was eventually seeded with $4.1 million by Rogers Ventures, the new business incubation wing of Rogers Communications Inc. (Rogers also owns Canadian Business Online). Chul Lee, 33, says Thoora solves the problem of media fragmentation by trawling the entire blogosphere, Twitter and nearly 5,000 traditional media sources to find the stories attracting the most blog posts, comments, Tweets, and news coverage. Olympics coverage will be used to refine Thoora’s ability to correctly predict news stories, as opposed to simply regurgitating what’s popular on Twitter. Establishing Thoora’s credibility will make it a valuable tool for the troubled media industry, which is looking to monetize mobile news. The company plans to make money through partnering arrangements with publishers and advertising companies, and has already been in discussions with a major search engine and a New York-based media company, both unnamed.

What is the greatest challenge currently facing Thoora and what are you doing about it?

We believe we have the world’s best technology but we have to build up brand recognition. We’re going to conferences, doing a lot of surveys and PR, and following Google’s path by talking to students, because they’re our main target market. They don’t read traditional media but they consume lots of online media. We’re grabbing news from traditional media but ranking it based on social media, so they’re getting a nice blend of both. In our surveys, younger people say they really like our product so we’re reaching out to them and trying to get them to adopt our next-generation news approach.

Who else — person or company — do you feel is doing innovative work and in what way?

Google used to be innovative but it isn’t anymore. All of the start-ups on the TechCrunch50 rankings of the best in Silicon Valley have potential but they’re small and not really impressive yet. There wasn’t anyone on the list that I thought had a really good idea on par with Google, which is the gold standard because it completely changed the IT industry.

How would you describe your leadership approach/style?

I get top talent, and I empower them properly so they can excel. Smart people can be a headache because they’re easily bored but I continuously give them challenges. People are leaving Google because it’s not challenging its people enough anymore. We’re small and hungry for success, so people are still happy with us.

How will traditional media organizations have to change to survive in the future?

When I talk to publishers and editors, they’re afraid of adapting to technology. Editorial judgment is more art than science, but my feeling is there’s synergy there if we pull together with technology.

How does Canada’s telecommunications and regulatory infrastructure need to change to boost the economy?

Mobile rates are too high in Canada and inhibiting uptake. In Korea and Japan, the governments are eager to roll down regulatory barriers because they want to favor the next-generation digital economy. Canada’s trying to do the same, but it’s slow and reluctant to change.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

A rocket scientist. But I decided to go into computer science instead of physics after I read the book The End of Science. It talks about how all the major problems in pure science are kind of solved, and the 21st century is all about the practical applications of science, which is more interesting and powerful.