Graph database company Neo4j maps out the future

Neo4j CEO Emil on the impact of the Panama Paper and the future of graph database technology.


Last year when the Panama Papers revealed how the wealthy have used tax havens to shelter vast sums of money, the technology of graph database company Neo4j played a key role in making it easier to analyse the data. ZDNet spoke to the company's CEO, Emil Eifrem to find out where the company is going next.

You have you said that you are ready to go for an IPO when the time is right?

I am an entrepreneur and I think that what we do is fundamental and incredibly valuable. This whole notion of connections and relationships in data; it's like everything in the body is protein and cells that are networked: everything around us is networked.

Biologists figured out that networks are the most powerful way to structure things. Networks are one of the basic pillars of mathematics.

Everywhere, we have figured out that this system of networking is the best way of connecting things except, for some reason, in data.

We have seen that there is a tremendous amount of business value in taking your business and re-imagining it along connections. That's what Google did, that's what Facebook did, that's what LinkedIn did.

In the consumer web alone, the companies that have done that shift have unlocked over a trillion dollars' of market cap. And by the way, that's not Swede-iefied hyperbolic American trillion, I mean that very precisely. Over a trillion dollars of market cap that has come from these companies. But these are industries that have been very high tech, that have worked with data but this data has worked in isolation.

We are taking that technology and giving it back to the enterprise.

Now, with the caveat that I'm an entrepreneur and tend to be too optimistic, I think that what we do is so, so valuable and so fundamental that I think we have an opportunity to build a big, independent company.

And we've always felt that way. We've always built the company that way. Which means, for example, getting funding, not just from my investors, but also crazy notions like actually having paying customers.

We've always built the company in that fashion. So in 2011, we said we would IPO in 2020. Now that is the goal, the intention.

But IPO is a mechanism - it's one path along the way. The real goal is our mission which I haven't talked about a lot publicly, but our mission is to help the world make sense of data. That's been our mission statement forever. That's the real goal.


Eifrem: "We defined the category...we took the words graph and database and put them together."

Photo: Neo4j

Now in 2011, I said IPO in 2020. Now we feel very confident that we're going to have the numbers to be able to go public.

Now we can but that's in the hands of this mass psychology called 'the market'. Now, we may not have favourable conditions, so maybe it will be 2019 or 21, who knows, I can't control that. The only thing I can control is my company.

And so that's how we think about IPO.

But what about the competition?

In the past 12 to 18 months, some of the biggest companies on the planet have entered our space. Oracle, IBM, SAP have all launched graph database offerings. I could go on and on.

As a tiny company - 150 people - of course that's a scary thing. But we defined the category. We took the words graph and database and put them together. We evangelised it. Today we're the leading graph database company by any objective metric. Any analyst will say that we're the leading graph database today. But that could rapidly change.

Sure, I've just raised a big round of funding - over $30m - but things rapidly change. But come on, IBM, Oracle, SAP? They're all pretty solid, right? So of course that's scary.

But the 100 percent honest and candid answer is that that is one percent of my time. The rest of my time is, "This is awesome". The only way that we can be successful, is if the graph database category is successful.

I'm a classically trained pianist. I know that one voice does not a choir make. We've been alone in this market for a long time and now other people are chiming in shouting, 'Graph databases are great!' Now, we've learned the song and we've talked all about this.

What's concerning to me, is that there are also some companies that are confusing the market. They are launching small graph features as part of their other database.

That's just very confusing because they claim to have graph support, and they do for the first one percent and then it falls apart when you want to do something real.

Now that's annoying because it confuses people. And ultimately, when people try it out, they end up coming to us anyway. But it adds a long layer of complexity around this thing and we are finally getting to a point that people are confused about the data market.

I think now, people are fairly clear that there are use cases for relational. There are use cases for document databases. There are use cases for graph. They're all fairly distinct.

More confusion in the market is not good for anyone, but broadly, competition is good.

After the Panama Papers story and its impact, are you getting a lot of interest from journalists?

Massive. The Panama Papers was a lightning strike. I think that that entire community learned that there's another way of working with data that is much more aligned with how we think.

Investigative journalism is all about connecting the dots - that's the definition of that. The Panama Papers made a big splash in a lot of ways and we got a lot of interest from there. And that is why we launched our program.

We have this data journalist Accelerator Program where we engage and coach with data journalists for free. We put a lot of time and resources into that because we think that it's such an important thing.

And, of course, now we have launched the Fellowship. We're very excited about this. It's a complete shot in the dark. It may not work at all. But we feel that it is important enough to try it.

How are things going generally for you?

I think that 2016 was very interesting for us because there were so many things going on, so many things happening. I have talked about a few of them here [at Graph Connect Europe], the work on cancer, the Panama Papers, the mission to Mars, and so on.

Further Reading:

Panama Papers: Finding connections using the power of the graph database

Panama Papers graphically demonstrate the power of the graph database

The continuing rise of graph databases

With IBM Power8 deal and Oracle backing for Cypher project, graph database Neo4j 2.3 is now out