Editor’s note: Modo Labs offers the Kurogo platform, a full-featured mobile-first portal solution, which includes enabling users to quickly create and deploy mobile apps. The platform is a unique, secure, end-to-end one-stop shop for mobile apps. Founder and CTO Andrew Yu explains the company’s journey as an MIT spinout and discusses how mobile apps will evolve over the next few years.
SandHill.com: What does your platform do? Is it mainly a tool to help people create mobile apps?
Andrew Yu: It’s not like generic tools that let people make mobile apps. The primary role of our software is to provide a solution so that people can create and maintain apps quickly. The Kurogo platform has more than 20 modules and is a mobile-optimized middleware that connects to an organization’s back-end systems.
So if somebody downloads our platform today from a university, hospital or enterprise, within a couple of hours they could put up a beta version or at least a mobile Web version of it so that they could actually start working with the directories and events calendar and many other modules. Or they may have their own developers who could use our platform and augment, extend and customize it to come up with their own solutions.
SandHill.com: How does it help people maintain their apps?
Andrew Yu: We include a solution for non-software developers, particularly business users inside an organization. This piece is very critical and very interesting for mobile applications moving forward. The Kurogo Publisher tool eliminates the bottlenecks that occur in development, especially waiting days or weeks for an app store to accept or reject a submitted app. Also, if an organization has 20-30 different departments that want to be part of the mobile effort, how can they maintain them? The process usually isn’t scalable.
Our platform provides a tool that lets departments take care of their own section of the applications. This distributes the load of the application-creation process as well as maintaining the content.
A number of our university customers are now using this tool to create and maintain their own admissions applications or new-student orientation apps. Instead of having to go through central IT every time they want to update that section of the application, our tool enables them to do it on their own. And we created it so the code can appear on the app without having to resubmit the updated app to the app store.
SandHill.com: If you’re providing a one-stop-shop solution, you’re also providing the security aspect. How does that work?
Andrew Yu: We interact with other mobile security solutions companies such as MobileIron, which augment our own security within our platform. We have excellent authentication and security in place with our platform. But some organizations want to go further with an extra security layer and functionality such as wiping the data from a device in the event someone loses a device. And some of our customers already have a security solution in place; in these cases, our Kurogo solution sits on top of that.
SandHill.com: How are universities and hospitals similar in their requirements for mobile apps?
Andrew Yu: There are a lot of similarities, and actually companies’ needs are similar too. A mobile user wants to find somebody by using a directory and maps. They need information about events. They need to be able to view YouTube and other video channels.
And the other thing is that universities and hospitals have to deal with many different types of mobile users. Students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni and visitors. A university’s mobile solutions have to cover all of these users.
Similarly, a hospital needs to provide information for patients, patients’ families, doctors, nurses, clinicians, staff and visitors. Besides find-a-doctor apps, hospitals are now using our platform to provide patient education or links to videos or even to an aggregation of social networks. For example, during a flu season or allergy season, they can use apps to educate patients who are either far away from the hospital or are in a waiting room about to visit a doctor.
However, they differ in their patterns of adopting mobile devices. Not too long ago a majority of the enterprise users used BlackBerries. Of course today that situation has changed tremendously. The university users adopted smartphone devices much earlier.
SandHill.com: You’re known as a mobile pioneer and created one of the first mobile frameworks for higher education.
Andrew Yu: Yes, my exposure to mobile dates back to 1997 when I was working with Windows CE devices (micro laptop-like devices). One of our customers was LG Electronics, and I subsequently became really interested in developing mobile applications.
In 2002 I started a company primarily focusing on the Palm OS platform, which at that time was the market leader in the PDA market. And we actually had some of the best-selling software within the Palm market.
In 2006 I became the mobile platform coordinator at MIT; I was hired in to figure out what to do with all the mobile devices that were coming onto the campus. Palm was dominant in the market then, Nokia was popular, and the iPhone wasn’t born yet.
One of the things we figured out at that time was that we would need to be able to support the mobile environment, no matter how it evolved, and not develop something that would work on only one platform. We took this same approach when we spun Modo Labs out of MIT and developed our Kurogo platform. We made it to work across the devices that are out there today as well as devices still to come many years down the road. Ultimately that vision and thought process really helped our product.
SandHill.com: Are you saying that your platform works across all devices and all operating systems today?
Andrew Yu: At MIT, we didn’t want to discriminate against anybody coming from Europe, China or other countries bringing different mobile devices onto the campus. Our solution was to come up with a framework that would support all of the different devices. Then in 2008-2009 app stores and native apps became super popular. So we also had to support that model.
Today our platform supports the mobile Web that goes across all the different devices including tablets, but with the native apps we support iOS and Android. We don’t support the new Microsoft Windows phone or the BlackBerry native — yet — but those devices can still access the same information from the university or other organization’s mobile website.
SandHill.com: What led up to the spinout?
Andrew Yu: In 2007-2009 we added new features to MIT’s mobile apps. Students could enroll in courses, get information about campus events, use a bus-tracking system and get information about weather or other emergencies. Then we created an open source platform called the MIT Mobile Framework, which was designed for other institutions to take advantage of the same code.
Two things happened next. One, I got a lot of calls from so many different schools asking how we made it work. Quite frankly, taking care of other universities beyond MIT wasn’t my job. So we saw an opportunity to start Modo Labs to eventually spread the technology and provide a commercial offering that other universities could use.
We spun out Modo Labs in 2010. MIT was our first customer, and our second customer was the other school in Cambridge (Harvard). Both MIT and Harvard were tremendous contributors to the initial code base for Kurogo.
Princeton, NYU, Georgetown, Tufts, Dartmouth, Boston College and other universities came on board as customers. They all have different back-end systems that our platform connects to and ultimately delivers mobile apps for such functionalities as adding and dropping classes, checking homework assignments, and handling issues in other areas such as admissions and alumni.
Between 2007 and 2010 the mobile industry really accelerated in the higher education market, especially in smartphone and tablet usage. We were in the right place at the right time to take advantage of that. The enterprise market and hospitals have since then caught up in usage of mobile devices.
SandHill.com: What is your pricing model?
Andrew Yu: Typically customers commit to multi-year contracts or at least commit on an annual basis. They put the platform either on their premises or we host it at Modo Labs. We also work with our customers to customize their applications with their own branding, user interface, and custom modules as needed.
SandHill.com: Is the information in the apps stored in the cloud?
Andrew Yu: Personal information and data are not stored in the cloud and simply pass through our middleware, which connects to the data sources inside our customers’ organizations. However, customers may use our Kurogo Publisher product to author and store public-facing media-rich content in the cloud.
SandHill.com: How do you think the mobile solutions and apps will evolve over the next two years? How different will it be from the way it is now?
Andrew Yu: Over the last five or six years we’ve seen a tremendous change in how people adapt to mobile devices. Over time, their expectations as to what the mobile devices and apps can and should do also changes.
I think users will expect hospitals, universities and enterprises to provide much more information than previously, and that demand will continue to rise. I think the way it will play out is that a lot more organizations will have a lot more mobile apps and the apps will have a lot more features and data available to the users.
In terms of how apps will be different from today, I think they will be a lot smarter. We’re already working on things that basically provide different features based on the user persona. Having 50 things that you could do inside an application is overwhelming. So you need to have a way to organize the information or customize it based on who the person is, where they are, and what type of access they are granted by the organization.
You can see this trend already in things like GoogleNow, which predicts what time it is where you are and then predicts what you might want to see. That’s the way things will be heading. There will be much smarter apps that essentially guide people throughout the life cycle.
An incoming student at the beginning of a semester might want to register for classes. But during the middle of the semester, that’s no longer important and other things will be important. Similarly, a hospital with a new patient would want to do certain things that differ from a patient who has been going to the hospital on a regular basis or a patient who is inside the hospital for care.
Having the ability to personalize applications will be a key focus in the future, and those smarter apps are starting to emerge. The demand will be tremendous, so organizations will need to figure out a way to meet those demands in a very efficient and scalable manner and provide solutions that are very useful and secure.
SandHill.com: Do you have advice for other startups?
Andrew Yu: Find a partner to help scale and market the business. Having that relationship versus not having that relationship makes a difference like night and day. It’s a tremendous boost for startups.
For us, we have a valuable relationship with AT&T, which we announced just a few weeks ago. I was at a conference last year in Boston and was co-presenting with one of the vice presidents from AT&T, and that led to our relationship. This now puts us on a different level than what we were doing before. Now we have access to sales reps that have active relationships with thousands of organizations in the United States as well as government. So it really opens the door for us and will propel Modo Labs to the next level and help us help other organizations mobilize their offerings.
Of course it’s not that easy to get such a relationship; but once you get it, it’s a tremendous opportunity. Entrepreneurs should seek those opportunities where they can potentially have a much bigger partner as a supporter and a reseller.
Andrew Yu is founder and CTO of Modo Labs. He is an expert on smartphones and mobile devices, with more than 17 years of Internet and mobile software experience in the U.S. and Asia. Prior to founding Modo Labs, Andrew led a team of mobile developers from MIT to create the MIT Mobile Framework, an open source project started in 2007 to help universities create compelling mobile Web applications. Andrew also serves on Modo Labs’ board of directors.
Kathleen Goolsby is managing editor at SandHill.com.