Entrepreneurs team up to open data center

Some of Massachusetts’ most successful tech entrepreneurs have raised $1 million to open a computing center on Thursday in Cambridge to ensure the region remains a hotbed of research on the so-called big data tech revolution.

The center, known as hack/reduce, will provide space for 150 computer engineers and data scientists to work on solutions for understanding and examining the torrents of data generated from the Internet and millions of wired devices — from smartphones to medical equipment.

Big data is the fast-emerging science of using powerful software to analyze huge databases so, for example, retailers can sift through countless bits of information to target potential customers, or municipalities, such as the city of Boston, can sort through traffic data to reduce congestion.

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“For big data you really need access to the latest and greatest technology. The idea is that we’ll provide these things for the best and brightest technology thinkers,” hack/reduce cofounder Chris Lynch said. Lynch is a partner with the Cambridge venture capital firm Atlas Venture and former chief executive of Vertica Systems, a database management company that Hewlett-Packard bought last year for $350 million.

The new center is housed inside the old Kendall Boiler and Tank Co. building on Third Street in Kendall Square and already has its first tenant: Sqrrl Data Inc., a freshly minted start-up that moved from Washington, D.C., to be part of the Cambridge program. Lynch said he is reviewing applications from other entrepreneurs and scientists applying for the center, which will provide free office space and computing resources.

Big data is already a multibillion-dollar business attracting the likes of tech giants such as EMC Corp. and IBM Corp. This part of the state’s tech sector already includes more than 100 companies that employ about 12,000 people, according to a report released earlier this year by the Mass Technology Leadership Council, an industry group.

To help promote the industry, the state of Massachusetts launched its own big data initiative in May and is contributing $50,000 to the hack/reduce program.

“We thought this was a great way to work on the talent pipeline, and underscore how the growth of big data is important to the growth of the Massachusetts innovation economy,” said Pamela Goldberg, chief executive of Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a quasi-public organization that promotes the state’s tech economy.

But even though the state is home to some of the pioneering figures in the field, many of whom work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Boston area did not have a nonacademic center with the sort of beefy computational power for entrepreneurs to test their data-sifting tools, said Fred Lalonde, chief executive of the Web travel start-up Hopper and cofounder of hack/reduce. “We were shocked to learn that there was no computing power like that in Cambridge,” he said.

Lalonde started hack/reduce as a daylong event for computer engineers when his company was located in Montreal. He has since relocated its headquarters to Cambridge at the urging of Lynch, and the hack/reduce venture blossomed into a permanent fixture.

“The idea is to make that building ground zero for big data on the Eastern Seaboard,” said Lalonde.

Its opening will also be a plus for Kendall Square, which has recently lost a number of promising young tech start-ups to neighborhoods in Boston. Two of the area’s best-known technology incubator programs, TechStars and Dogpatch Labs, are also looking at new space and may move outside Cambridge.

While hack/reduce, which is named after the data programming model MapReduce, will function in many ways like an incubator program, it will not take an ownership stake in successful start-ups in exchange for participating in the program. Lalonde and Lynch have set up the program as a nonprofit organization.

And it will also become a data laboratory of sorts. Some of its backers, such as the state of Massachusetts, are expected to provide the center with data sets that it participants can use to test their new software tools.

“What hack/reduce is about is building a community where people who want to work on these challenging data problems can get together,” said Samuel Madden, a professor specializing in database management at MIT. Madden is also a hack/reduce adviser along with Steve Papa, former chief executive of Endeca Technologies Inc., which was sold to Oracle last year for $1.075 billion.

Having that kind of resource could keep more MIT graduates from heading West for jobs at companies like Google Inc. or Facebook Inc., two tech giants sitting on enormous piles of user data. “As a professor at MIT,” said Madden, “I hate to see my students go off to Silicon Valley.”