Data Wizards

A fast-growing firm conjures answers to complicated problems.

By Martin Patail August 23, 2012

The Old Town offices of Thetus, the company helmed by 52-year-old CEO Danielle Forsyth, feel more rumpus room than James Bond. Sunlight bathes indoor bike racks and a ping-pong table. Some employees sip Bridgeport IPA from the office kegerator, the privilege of those who choose to stay past 4 p.m. 

Few would guess that many of these relaxed workers are helping to catch terrorists, pinpoint political instability in Africa, and track narco-smuggling submarines.

Thetus makes software that transforms raw information into easy-to-read visual models. The programs sift key words, find patterns, and mesh different types of data (crime stats and videos, for example) to generate customizable charts, maps, and tables. A Portland real estate firm recently teamed up with Thetus to help companies choose office space by analyzing ceiling heights, light levels, bike parking, transit, and other factors. In some (more exciting) cases, the results allow unnamed government agencies to unearth clues amid intelligence chatter. 

After graduating from Ontario’s Waterloo University with a degree in math and computer science, Forsyth moved to Portland to work at Tektronix in 1990. Eventually, she left to team up with Roy Hall, winner of a 1998 Oscar for pioneering CGI work. The two started Thetus in 2003 to translate their backgrounds into practical problem-solving. 

The US government soon realized the power of Thetus’s product to analyze intelligence. But as the Information Age goes into overdrive, Forsyth expects more private-sector business. “The government has been dealing with risk for a long time,” she says. “But now there’s a lot of corporate risk. We work with people who face changing and evolving environments.”

“Our thing is looking at information from different points of view. It’s really that basic.”

—Danielle Forsyth

Over the past two years, Thetus’s workforce has gone from 50 to more than 80, and the company currently plans to add about a dozen new positions this year. In fact, Forsyth concedes that staying focused is a challenge with so much juicy data to analyze. A recent side project led Thetus to pitch one particular pro basketball team on a method to evaluate players’ value. But Forsyth’s true “obsession,” she says, is with changing the way companies measure success, by creating new ways to weigh environmental and social factors alongside profits and losses. 

“We pay lip service to sustainability right now,” she says. “The only way to get people to act responsibly is if their practices are visible.”

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