Bryan Mistele remembers the moment the idea for his company took shape. “It came out of left field,” he says. “Literally.” It was October 2004, and the field was filled with 5-year-olds playing soccer. Mistele was standing on the sideline, watching his son, and chatting about his plans with another soccer dad — Rick Rashid, Microsoft’s senior vice president in charge of research. Mistele spent nine years at Microsoft and had left a few months earlier, determined to start a business of his own. He was thinking of putting together global positioning system data to construct traffic reports, he told Rashid. Then you’ll be interested in this, Rashid replied, pulling out a cell phone and demonstrating a traffic prediction program his researchers were beta testing at that very moment. Commuter science meets computer science: Mistele knew right away that this was a combination he could sell.

Had the conversation occurred a year earlier, he would have been out of luck. Microsoft’s research division, with more than 700 researchers worldwide, is one of the largest in the world, and for decades has developed technology that doesn’t fit in with Windows, Office or other core company products. Before last year, however, the traffic prediction software would have been relegated to a shelf. But the law department of the Redmond, Wash.-based software colossus was about to launch a new unit designed to change all that. And Mistele was about to get in on the ground floor.

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