Kuang Chen PhD ’11 Propels Paper-Bound Data into the Digital Age

Update: In January 2016, Captricity raised $35M in Series C financing. To celebrate, we’re re-posting our profile of Kuang Chen from April 2015.

UC Berkeley boasts an impressive portfolio of data science companies born in the midst of on-campus research. Spark-based Databricks was founded out of Berkeley’s AMPLab. Jan Pizicha developed Recommind’s CORE technology as a Berkeley research fellow. Trifacta was a product of Professor Joe Hellerstein’s research on data-centric systems.

Cal-founded Captricity has a similar origin story – developed by Kuang Chen PhD ’11 as part of his doctoral research in Computer Science. But unlike its Cal-founded peers, Captricity wasn’t incubated in a Berkeley laboratory. Instead, Chen landed on the idea for the data-as-a-service platform while conducting research in rural villages across East Africa.

Captricity has its roots in East African villages like Ruhiira, Uganda

Deployed by the United Nations Development Program to set up a data collection program for community health workers in 2009, Chen watched data entry clerks spend hours typing responses from patient forms into an electronic record-keeping system. The process was expensive and inefficient. It siphoned time and energy available for valuable analysis of that data. More importantly, the existing process didn’t equip doctors with tools to identify progress and trends, and thereby become more effective managers and advocates for their communities.

Chen knew that upending analog processes in favor of paperless systems wouldn’t be practical or even desirable in communities with limited access to portable technology. Instead, he began thinking about ways to efficiently convert paper-bound data into dynamic digital records. He realized that if organizations could scan documents, use an algorithm to compile affirmative and negative answers from paper forms, and incorporate those responses into a digital dataset, they could significantly reduce the time taken to transcribe paper forms into digital records.

From there, Captricity was born, a cloud service that uses the machine learning principles similar to those behind Re-Captcha and book digitization to extract and integrate data from paper forms – including handwriting – with 99.9%+ accuracy.

Over the next two years, Chen put his ideas to the test in Tanzania and Uganda before finally getting it right in Mali in 2011, processing nearly 37,000 pages of handwritten survey responses in a single week – a task that would have taken two clerks an estimated 8 months. After taking snapshots of the forms, his software prototype broke the images into small pieces to be crowdsourced to human readers. Readers’ transcriptions trained machine learning algorithms, which ultimately took over the transcription duties, relying on human readers for only the most indecipherable text.

Captricity was ready. Chen incorporated the company in the spring of 2011, and began building a small team using seed funding from the Social+Capital Partnership and the Knight Foundation.

Captricity transforms paper, mobile, and web forms into dynamic digital reports

Today, Chen leads a growing team of over 40 employees, delivering the subscription-based platform to both public service and large enterprise organizations. The revenue the company generates from paying customers, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), New York Life, Symantec, and Chrysler, funds its low-cost services in the developing world, deployed through an affiliate organization, Captricity.org.

One key to Chen’s success has been his understanding that “paper is practical and sticky.” It doesn’t run out of batteries. It doesn’t need upgrading. It’s accessible – and trusted – by thousands around the world without access to technology. So instead of ditching paper altogether, he’s embraced it.

“The paperless mindset often overlooks a critical fact: vast stores of valuable information are still housed on paper,” Chen wrote for Information Week. “When we think of big data as only including the information we can easily access – like Web logs and click streams – we are missing a huge opportunity.”

Instead, Captricity’s website boasts the counter-intuitive tagline: Go Digital. Embrace Paper. “You don’t have to eliminate paper or overhaul workflows to improve the way you work,” the website explains. After users scan their paper, mobile, and web forms, Captricity transforms the static data into dynamic reports, analytics, and workflows that can be viewed on Captricity’s website or downloaded into organizations’ existing backend systems.

Kuang Chen PhD ’11 leads a team of 40, many of whom are fellow Cal alumni

With the company’s monthly recurring revenue increasing astronomically, and a customer base that has grown by 300% year-over-year, the company’s star (and profitability) continues to rise. At its core, however, the company’s origins in the rural villages of East Africa have continued to define its corporate culture and mission.

As a Berkeley Founders’ Pledge member, Chen is also committed to maintaining a strong connection to Berkeley, and giving back when he can.