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Making photos their business

MIT alumni took their photo-aggregating app to market with help from the Institute.
Photos from the MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science by M. Scott Brauer and Dominick Reuter
Inaki Berenguer (foreground) in Pixable's office in New York City.
Inaki Berenguer (foreground) in Pixable's office in New York City.
Photo courtesy of Pixable

Today, online photo-sharing is a technological phenomenon, with billions of images shared daily via social media, image-hosting websites and mobile apps.

Back in 2009, when photo-sharing had just become standard fare on social media and the launch of smartphones with built-in cameras had ushered in a “mobile sharing boom,” two MIT entrepreneurs saw photo-sharing as a unique business opportunity — and it paid off handsomely.

While students at MIT, Inaki Berenguer MBA ’09 and Andres Blank MBA ’09 created Pixable, a Web and mobile app that uses algorithms to scan a user’s social-media accounts, collect the most relevant photos, and aggregate them in one place.

To commercialize the app, the two co-founded Pixable in an MIT dorm, later relocating to New York. The startup soon garnered millions in funding and its technology began receiving praise in tech circles as a valuable social-photo organizing tool.

Last year Pixable, which had accumulated five million users, sold to telecommunications giant SingTel for $26.5 million. Now, as a subsidiary of SingTel, Pixable is reaching a wider audience, Berenguer says, with the possibility of expanding in other countries, and is developing new technologies.

Berenguer, who is Pixable’s CEO, attributes the startup’s early success to factors including his team and early help from MIT. Additionally, he says, the startup benefited from “an element of luck” and some foresight in anticipating the popularity of smartphones, social media and photography as a widespread means of communication.

“Early on, we bet on this intersection of mobile, social media and photography,” Berenguer says. “Facebook and Twitter took off. Today, people take pictures with their smartphones and upload them to social media all the time. We knew there was an opportunity there, but we didn’t know smartphones, social media and photography were going to explode the way they did in the last five years, creating many opportunities for entrepreneurs and interest from investors.”

The other Pixable co-founder is Alberto Sheinfeld, now Pixable’s chief innovation officer. The startup has been featured in TechCrunch, The New York Times, Newsweek and The Atlantic, as well as on the BBC and CNN.    

Making ‘a content portal’

The concept behind Pixable dates to 2008, when Berenguer and Blank were students at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

The two had taken several trips abroad with classmates, but couldn’t aggregate all the photos that their classmates had taken and shared on their Facebook, Flickr and Picasa accounts. Wanting something simpler, they created software to aggregate their photos into one place.

To do so, they combined machine-learning algorithms with available technologies. Specifically, Pixable made use of Facebook Connect and other application programming interfaces from various photo repositories, such as Flickr, Twitter and Picasa. “We pulled together these types of ‘off-the-shelf’ new technologies, and created a very novel commercial product,” Berenguer says.

This led Pixable to develop its current core technology, dubbed “WonderRank,” which analyzes dozens of variables associated with a user’s social-media photos (and videos) — such as “likes,” “retweets,” comments and tags — and other metadata to select the most relevant photos for the user. Then, it quickly organizes and displays the photos as categories, such as most popular, most recent or updated Facebook profile photos. It also offers public photo feeds based on user interests, such as sports, style, music or news.

This technology is similar to what’s used for news aggregation websites, such as Google News and Yahoo News, and, more recently, Flipboard. However, Pixable does something novel by applying the technology to photos, Berenguer says.

“In the end, Pixable is a content portal. But our content is photos,” Berenguer says. “The information is out there — in the form of billions of new photos and videos shared every day on the Internet — but we’re aggregating, reorganizing, ranking and presenting that personalized information to the user.”

Getting on track

In Pixable’s early stages, Berenguer and Blank — who were students in MIT Sloan’s entrepreneurship and innovation track — used a variety of MIT resources to build their startup. During breaks, for instance, the two held meetings with potential employees — primarily MBA classmates and MIT engineers — at the Institute. And, with a prototype in hand, they constantly brainstormed with classmates, garnering “customer” feedback.

“When you are a student building a consumer product, the most important thing is to get feedback from a lot of people, because every person in the world can be a potential customer,” Berenguer says. “At any time, at MIT, we could have 200 students testing our product.”

Through various events, they networked with lawyers, venture capitalists, angel investors, accountants and other members of the local startup community — some of whom would later support Pixable, financially or otherwise. (In its first year, Pixable raised roughly $400,000 in funding from various MIT connections.)

The two also participated in a variety of MIT’s business and professional clubs, such as the Venture Capital and Equity Club, the Venture Mentoring Service, the $100K entrepreneurship competition, and the Marketing Club.

“That’s the beauty of MIT,” Berenguer says. “It sits on an ecosystem of successful entrepreneurs, professionals that understand startups. You go to MIT and you don’t need to even walk outside to get support.”

Berenguer says they even made their class projects about Pixable. When tasked to draw up a marketing plan for a startup, they wrote their plan for Pixable. They did the same for assignments for business plans and financial models. By graduation, they had drawn up solid schematics for Pixable.

But Berenguer says MIT helped him in another way: The Institute gave him confidence and ambition as an entrepreneur. “You’re taught you can’t be afraid of thinking big. You go to MIT and see experienced professors, engineers building and innovating and not afraid to compete with big companies,” he says. “Then, they tell you there were 30 students last year that received funding and started a company. And you say, ‘They had the same access to resources as I have. I can do that too.’”

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