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Tech startup brings history to life in Buffalo incubator

Daniel Robison
Operating inside a local incubator, Randforce Associates merges technology with historical materials.

Business incubators are mostly home to young companies shopping new technology, like medical devices or apps for smart phones.

But there’s an exception at the University at Buffalo Technology Incubator: an exception more likely to be at home in the humanities department, than in the engineering school.

Managing history

Historical materials are tough to translate into a profit. But that’s what Randforce Associates CEO Michael Frisch of tries to do every day.

“One of our tag lines is: We want to put the oral back in oral history,” he says.

Randforce digitizes oral histories, taking in-depth interviews and making them searchable by word or theme for the web or museums.

“Essentially [we use] technology to solve some long-standing problems in what people did with oral history, particularly how they managed the stuff they collect,” Frisch says.

The goal is to make sometimes hours-long oral histories easier to navigate, so in this age of shrinking attention spans, more people can access the material. Each word of an interview is cataloged, and themes are earmarked. Interactive indexes are built to allow users to jump to any point of interest inthe interview.

Using Randforce’s approach, researchers can better engage with historical materials, which now mostly exist on paper, Frisch says.

“A transcript is not that human being talking,” he says. “It has no emotion.”

“Historical dishes”

Frisch likens raw oral interviews to raw ingredients  in the kitchen - when they’re brought together, they become elaborate historical dishes.

“Messing in the kitchen is really what it’s all about. The kitchen is where the raw and the cooked come together. And with these new tools, it kind of democratizes that ability. ‘Cooked’ is this one time final product. We’re no longer dependent on documentary filmmakers or archivists,” Frisch says.

Down the hall from Randforce’s office are all manner of small companies, specializing in fields like cancer research and computer software. Frisch says neighbors like those give his organization credibility, as he experiments with history. 

“When I say University at Buffalo Technology Incubator, that has cachet. It legitimizes the larger academic ground. And that’s a lot different than if I had a private company name with an office on Main Street,” Frisch says.

So far, Randforce has created around 60 projects, mostly for museums and foundations. But Frisch says he’s still working on ways to make the historical meals his company cooks up in their kitchen, something that the average citizen will want to eat. 

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