Powerset (company)

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FoundedSan Francisco, U.S. (2005)
ParentMicrosoft (as of August 1, 2008)

Powerset was an American company based in San Francisco, California, that, in 2006, was developing a natural language search engine for the Internet.[1] On July 1, 2008, Powerset was acquired by Microsoft for an estimated $100 million.[2]

Powerset was working on building a natural language search engine that could find targeted answers to user questions (as opposed to keyword based search). For example, when confronted with a question like "Which U.S. state has the highest income tax?", conventional search engines ignore the question phrasing and instead do a search on the keywords "state", "highest", "income", and "tax". Powerset on the other hand, attempts to use natural language processing to understand the nature of the question and return pages containing the answer.

The company was in the process of "building a natural language search engine that reads and understands every sentence on the Web".[3] The company has licensed natural language technology from PARC, the former Xerox Palo Alto Research Center.[4]

On May 11, 2008, the company unveiled a tool for searching a fixed subset of English Wikipedia using conversational phrases rather than keywords.[5]


In a form of beta testing, Powerset opened an online community called Powerlabs on September 17, 2007. Business Week said: "The company hopes the site will marshal thousands of people to help build and improve its search engine before it goes public next year."[6] Said The New York Times: "[Powerset Labs] goes far beyond the 'alpha' or 'beta' testing involved in most software projects, when users put a new product through rigorous testing to find its flaws. Powerset doesn’t have a product yet, but rather a collection of promising natural language technologies, which are the fruit of years of research at Xerox PARC."[7]

Powerlabs' initial search results are taken from Wikipedia.[8]


Barney Pell (born March 18, 1968, in Hollywood, California)[9] was co-founder and CEO of Powerset. Pell received his Bachelor of Science degree in symbolic systems from Stanford University in 1989, where he graduated Phi Beta Kappa and was a National Merit Scholar. Pell received a PhD in computer science from Cambridge University in 1993, where he was a Marshall Scholar.[10] He has worked at NASA, as chief strategist and vice president of business development at StockMaster.com (acquired by Red Herring in March, 2000) and at Whizbang! Labs. Prior to joining Powerset, Pell was an Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Mayfield Fund, a venture capital firm in Silicon Valley.[11] Pell is also a founder of Moon Express, Inc., a U.S. company awarded a $10M commercial lunar contract by NASA and a competitor in the Google Lunar X PRIZE.[12]

Steve Newcomb was the COO and co-founder of Powerset. Prior to joining Powerset, he was a co-founder of Loudfire, General Manager at Promptu, and was on the board of directors at Jaxtr. He left Powerset in October 2007 to form Virgance, a social startup incubator.

Lorenzo Thione (born in Como, Italy) was the product architect and co-founder of Powerset. Prior to joining Powerset, he worked at FXPAL[11] in natural language processing and related research fields. Thione earned his master's degree in software engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.[11]

Ronald Kaplan, former manager of research in Natural Language Theory and Technology at PARC, served as the company's CTO and CSO.[13]

Ryan Ferrier is a member of the founding team of Powerset. He managed personnel and internal operations. After 2008 he went on to co-found Serious Business, which made Facebook applications and was later bought by Zynga.

Another Powerset alumnus, Alex Le, became CTO of Serious Business and went on to become an executive producer at Zynga when it bought the company. Siqi Chen founded a stealth startup in mobile computing after leaving Powerset.[14]

Tom Preston-Werner and Chris Wanstrath worked at Powerset and left after the acquisition to found GitHub (also acquired by Microsoft).[15]


Powerset attracted a wide range of investors, many of whom had considerable experience in the venture capital field.[16] The company received $12.5 million in Series A funding during November 2007, co-led by the venture capital firms Foundation Capital and The Founders Fund.[17][18]

Among the better-known investors:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Helft, Miguel (2007-01-01). "In Silicon Valley, the Race Is On to Trump Google". The New York Times.
  2. ^ Powerset Blog : Microsoft to Acquire Powerset Archived July 2, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ "Powerset Blog: Powerset launches Powerset Labs at TechCrunch40". Archived from the original on October 30, 2007. Retrieved 2008-03-04.
  4. ^ Helft, Miguel (2007-02-09). "In a Search Refinement, a Chance to Rival Google". The New York Times.
  5. ^ Powerset Debuts With Search of Wikipedia - NYTimes.com. Bits.blogs.nytimes.com. Retrieved on 2013-07-21.
  6. ^ Hof, Robert (2007-09-17). "Powerset: Move Over, Google". Business Week.
  7. ^ Helft, Miguel (2007-09-17). "Powerset to Skeptics: Try Us". The New York Times.
  8. ^ Kopytoff, Verne (2007-09-17). "Power is turned on, a bit, at Powerset". SFgate.com (San Francisco Chronicle).
  9. ^ "Barney Pell's Personal History". Archived from the original on October 14, 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-16.
  10. ^ "Barney Pell's Weblog". Archived from the original on 2008-02-28. Retrieved 2008-02-16.
  11. ^ a b c "Powerset Founders". Archived from the original on 2007-10-27. Retrieved 2008-02-16.
  12. ^ "MoonEx aims to scour moon for rare materials". Los Angeles Times. 2011-04-08. Retrieved 2011-04-10. MoonEx's machines are designed to look for materials that are scarce on Earth but found in everything from a Toyota Prius car battery to guidance systems on cruise missiles. ... The company is among several teams hoping to someday win the Google Lunar X Prize competition, a $30-million race to the moon in which a privately-funded team must successfully place a robot on the moon's surface and have it explore at least 1/3 of a mile. It also must transmit high definition video and images back to Earth before 2016. ... should be ready to land on the lunar surface by 2013
  13. ^ Powerset press release, 2007-03-17 Archived October 28, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Robin Wauters (2010-02-11). "Zynga Buys Social Gaming Startup Serious Business". Retrieved 2013-04-12.
  15. ^ Steve Newcomb (2010). "Cult Creation".
  16. ^ Powerset press release, 2006-11-02 Archived April 20, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  17. ^ Powerset press release, November 2007 Archived April 20, 2008, at the Wayback Machine
  18. ^ PARC press release, 2007 Archived May 12, 2008, at the Wayback Machine

External links[edit]