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Big data spawns little shoots as startups spread across Ohio

Vice President and CFO Paul Keinath of DataCenter.BZ in Columbus, Ohio
Vice President and CFO Paul Keinath of DataCenter.BZ in Columbus, Ohio
Big data has landed in Ohio in a big way. While IBM's much-anticipated Client Center for Advanced Analytics opened in Dublin last fall, health care data king Explorys continues to expand in Cleveland. But as the larger entities chug through the massive rivers of big data, Ohio is nurturing some smaller shoots by way of startups, expansions and higher education.
Counting sheep the big data way
Capturing big data is no small task, particularly when you're a smaller fish, but the seven-member team of Cleveland-based Huneo is doing just that by providing devices that wirelessly monitor human health, and then collecting and storing the resulting information.
"If you go to any power plant or chemical plant or paper mill plant," says Huneo CEO and co-founder Phil Ryder, "they will have recorded every temperature, every pressure flow, feed rates, and everything they've made and keep that data online in second to second intervals for the last 20 years. But if you go to a hospital and see a monitor in the ICU, those little lines get to the left of the monitor, fall off the screen and are never seen again."
That data, which might include any number of vital signs and span the life of one person or a body of patients, represents a vast amount of information that could be mined to help improve patient care. "This really gets into big data." 
For now, Huneo is focusing on an aspect of the human condition that is as universal as breathing—sleep. "We have expertise in the analysis of sleep diagnostic data," says Ryder, referencing one of Huneo's partners, Dr. Jeb Black, who is the former director of the Stanford University Sleep Disorders Clinic and Clinical Research Center. "We are truly specialists in this very narrow field of big data."
How long until Huneo's work transfers into a good night's sleep for you? Hopefully soon, but not just yet. Getting their hands around the big data of sleep has taken the Huneo team time. Founded in 2009, they've spent four years developing their product. "We really just started selling the services six months ago," says Ryder, adding that the company has already garnered two contracts. "We're doing well."
Despite the specialized nature of what they do, Ryder sees the world of big data as a vast resource that could yield untold bounty. "Big data tools are all about taking a mass of stuff that really isn't all that valuable and turning it into gold."
To unearth that gold, of course, you're going to need a lot of miners.
Ohio's newest Forty Niners don't need picks
One thing everyone in the analytics industry agrees upon is that there is no shortage of data, but the opposite is true when it comes to people who know what to do with it. To feed the growing need for employees who can crunch numbers in the strange new world of big data, two Ohio institutions are inviting undergrads to study it.
Students attending Bowling Green State University's College of Business can earn a degree in business analytics and intelligence or minor in applied statistics. The Farmer School of Business at Miami University offers undergraduate programs in information systems and analytics, with minors in business analytics, information systems, decision sciences and management of information technology.
"At the end of last March we had 60 kids in an analytics minor," says Skip Benamati, Professor and Chair of Miami's Department of Information Systems and Analytics. "Twelve months later—this year—we had 113. It grew about 44 percent and it's still growing. Our marketing faculty are now saying to their students, 'You need to pick this up. This will make you a better marketer. This will give you more opportunities in the field.'"
In response to that growth, Benamati is at work expanding the program. "We don't have an analytics major yet, although we have one that's in the approval process. Hopefully it will be online next year. It will be a co-major."
Next January, Benamati's department will offer a new "Big Data Management" course that will cover text mining with a focus on Hadoop, the industry's hottest data synthesis platform that boasts users such as Google, Netflix and Facebook. "Even though we hear so much about big data and manipulating data, there's still way more demand than there is supply of talent in the field," says Benamati, adding that the need for such skills aren't just growing in Ohio. "It's growing everywhere."
Benamati is quick to acknowledge the rapidly changing nature of the field as one of the inherent challenges to teaching it. "What's fascinating to me is that what we're calling 'big data' now," he says, "we might laugh at it in five to ten years." Although students will always have to adapt to changing techniques and platforms, he notes, the ones that have a core understanding of statistical analytics will ultimately succeed. "Those are the ones who are going to win in the end."
To that end, industry insiders such as James Kobielus, IBM Big Data Evangelist (yes, that's really his title), know that when such students eventually step into the job market, plenty of hiring professionals will be eyeing them.
"A big challenge is finding this talent," says Kobielus, "or growing your own talent, or cross training your existing analytic staff to learn more about the art of predictive modeling. Where are you going to find all the data scientists you need to tackle all these analytical challenges?"
As Benamati grooms his students to become the answer to that question, the volume of the data itself is growing like an electronic weed, one Kobielus warns needs constant attention. "Only keep as much as you need," he advises. "Storage technologies are not free."
Which for some in the Buckeye State, is a business opportunity in and of itself.
Big data, big storage
Even Ken Jennings and his Jeopardy! sparring partner Watson couldn't wrap their collective head around the amount of information inside DataCenter.BZ's 62,000 square foot facility in Columbus. A customer's single rack, which is like a server cabinet, might hold two petabytes of data. For reference, "peta" means a one with 15 zeros—all on the left side of the decimal point.
Essentially, DataCenter.BZ supplies a very safe and reliable infrastructure in which customers store data. They, in turn, can access, monetize and mine it as they see fit. "We are a high-density, highly-certified data center," says Director of Business Development Michael Scherer, explaining that the facility has enormous power and cooling capacities in order to keep clients' equipment safely stored. "There's a lot of security, a lot of redundancies, multi-utility feeds for power, multiple generators, UPS's (uninterrupted power supplies)—all sorts of underlying architecture and infrastructure to ensure that equipment never goes offline. That's critical in terms of big data, cloud services, centralized computing—all those sorts of things."
The need in the area is great, says Scherer, noting the presence of government entities, the financial industry, logistics and the healthcare industry. "Columbus and the rest of the region is a hotbed. You have a massive amount of data being generated or coming through. It's a fertile environment for these sorts of services."
Founded in 2008 with "a couple of banker tenants," DataCenter.BZ currently employs 17, but that's soon to change. "We could not be busier," says Scherer. To address the influx, the company plans to break ground on a second facility this summer. The new 100,000 square foot building is slated to open in early 2014 and have 15 full time employees.
"It's a very big market already, but it's just at the beginning of its growth cycle," says Scherer. "There is a tremendous amount of growth coming."

Photos Bob Perkoski except where noted
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