Twitter buys Harvard machine-learning spinout Whetlab

Twitter file

Twitter is adding some artificial intelligence heft to its Boston-area office.

The social-media company said Wednesday that it had acquired Whetlab, a Cambridge-based data analysis software startup co-founded by a Harvard professor just over a year ago. Whetlab listed five employees on its website, with two in the Boston area and three others in Toronto.

Twitter would not discuss how much it paid for the fledgling company, but said Whetlab’s employees would join the company’s Cambridge office. That office is already home to two companies that Twitter acquired in early 2013: app-debugging startup Crashlytics and data-analysis company Bluefin Labs.

Whetlab’s specialty is in machine learning, the use of software to find patterns and make predictions from large amounts of data. It’s the kind of technology that helps Amazon suggest new items based on someone’s shopping history, or gives Netflix a good idea of what kind of movies a viewer might want to watch next.

Whetlab has developed software that makes existing types of machine-learning software easier to use for garden-variety engineers. Its software automatically fine-tunes machine-learning algorithms, replacing work that would typically be done by multiple data scientists.

“We believe that Whetlab’s technology can have a great impact by accelerating Twitter’s internal machine learning efforts,” the startup said in a note on its website.

It’s unclear exactly how Twitter will use Whetlab’s software, which was developed under an intellectual property license from Harvard.

But we do know that Twitter is sitting on a pile of data about its users and their interests, and that it’s desperate to turn that data into more profit — chief executive Dick Costolo recently stepped down amid pressure from investors to improve the company’s growth.

“It is a very, very hot area of computer science. All of the large tech companies are working in this area,” said Sam Liss of Harvard’s technology development office. “There are only so many people in the world who are really good at the cutting edge, the state of the art.”

Whetlab had not offered its product to a general market yet, and there did not appear to be any outside investors involved in the startup. Whetlab said its acquisition meant a test program with a closed group of users would be shut down in mid-July.