DISCERN Raises $20 Million

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

For investment professionals, the performance of one Texas oil well during a single day could be an easy item to overlook when it is buried among billions of other data points.

Discern Group Inc., a San Francisco-based startup that specializes in finding what it calls "weak signals" that could affect financial markets, used public data to determine that a well drilled by an Oklahoma-based energy company one day last November performed better than 95% of the company's wells in the region, was an outlier and therefore deserved a closer look.

"They were using a different method than they had in the past, and that data was filed with the state of Texas," said Discern founder and Chief Executive Harry Blount. Discern, which sells such signals as a service to portfolio managers, analysts, traders and other financial professionals, alerted its customers that a significant event had happened. The energy company "was expected to have trendline results, but they produced results better than expected and they outperformed their peers over the next 90 days by 11%."

With the goal of building out similar data signals as a service for the real estate, banking, retail, technology and other sectors by the end of the year, Discern has secured a $20 million Series A round led by Artiman Ventures .

The idea--to aggregate data sources and program algorithms to transform signal noise into actionable insights--isn't a new one. From hedge fund Two Sigma Investments LLC to startup Kensho Technologies Inc ., financial firms are employing armies of programmers and mathematicians to make more data-driven decisions. The data sources include everything from Twitter comments to geological events, and are designed to augment work done by quantitative analysts and analyze in seconds information that used to take days or weeks to understand.

Unlike Kensho, which operates like a Siri for investment professionals and is backed by investors including Google Ventures and Goldman Sachs , Discern's platform is designed to surface information that users aren't aware of and don't know they should be seeking. And unlike Two Sigma Investments , which has built its $25 billion hedge fund business around such technology, Discern isn't a financial firm and has no interest in executing any trades itself.

The company said its customer base includes 10 of the largest active equity managers in the U.S., but it declined to share names.

Discern pipes in real-time data from public sources including the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics , the Federal Reserve and the U.S. Census and commercial partners. Discern pays those commercial partners a portion of the $12,000-per-seat fee it charges each end user.

The list of commercial data partners, which Mr. Blount said he intends to grow, now includes equity and group ranking system Fusion IQ, commercial and residential property condition database BuildFax, investments research publisher New Constructs, business intelligence firm SNL Financial , digital-media aggregator HedgeChatter, housing data provider Altos, and portfolio management automation company Alpha Theory.

Artiman Ventures Partner Yatin Mundkur said he liked Discern's technology and approach. His only concern as an investor was that the startup wasn't based on the East Coast near its target customers.

"It may sound simple, but a lot of companies fail for operational reasons," he said, adding that his concern was addressed when the company hired an East Coast sales team. "We've seen the traction they've been getting. Interest is very high."

Mr. Blount formed the basis for the idea of the startup while helping with a research study commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences . A longtime Wall Street professional who had worked at Lehman Brothers and Credit Suisse First Boston, Mr. Blount said he joined the effort to create a tech platform for gathering large amounts of disparate data with the goal of reducing the frequency and magnitude of surprise events like 9/11. He founded Discern in 2009 with the goal of creating a similar platform for the benefit of investing professionals.

Based in San Francisco with a sales and marketing presence in New York and Boston, Discern employs 25 on staff and another 25 as full-time independent contractors.

The startup, which expects to double its head count during the next year, was valued at just south of $60 million.

Mr. Blount and other founding team members also contributed their personal funds alongside Artiman.

Mr. Mundkur joins the Discern board. Larry Sonsini , the former New York Stock Exchange director and chairman of Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, serves as an advisory board member.