Astroscreen raises $1M to detect social media manipulation with machine learning

In an era of social media manipulation and disinformation, we could sure use some help from innovative entrepreneurs. Social networks are now critical to how the public consumes and shares the news. But these networks were never built for an informed debate about the news. They were built to reward virality. That means they are open to manipulation for commercial and political gain.

Fake social media accounts – bots (automated) and ‘sock-puppets’ (human-run) – can be used in a highly organized way to spread and amplify minor controversies or fabricated and misleading content, eventually influencing other influencers and even news organizations. And brands are hugely open to this threat. The use of such disinformation to discredit brands has the potential for very costly and damaging disruption when up to 60% of a company’s market value can lie in its brand.

Astroscreen is a startup which uses machine learning and disinformation analysts to detect social media manipulation. It’s now secured $1M in initial funding to progress its technology. And it has a heritage which suggests it at least has a shot at achieving this.

Its techniques include coordinated activity detection, linguistic fingerprinting and fake account and botnet detection.

The funding round was led by Speedinvest, Luminous Ventures, UCL Technology Fund, which is managed by AlbionVC in collaboration with UCLB, AISeed, and the London Co-investment Fund.

Astroscreen CEO Ali Tehrani previously founded a machine-learning news analytics company which he sold in 2015 before fake news gained widespread attention. He said: “While I was building my previous start-up I saw at first-hand how biased, polarising news articles were shared and artificially amplified by vast numbers of fake accounts. This gave the stories high levels of exposure and authenticity they wouldn’t have had on their own.”

Astroscreen’s CTO Juan Echeverria, whose Ph.D. at UCL was on fake account detection on social networks, made headlines in January 2017 with the discovery of a massive botnet managing some 350,000 separate accounts on Twitter.

Ali Tehrani also thinks social networks are effectively holed-below the waterline on this whole issue: “Social media platforms themselves cannot solve this problem because they’re looking for scalable solutions to maintain their software margins. If they devoted sufficient resources, their profits would look more like a newspaper publisher than a tech company. So, they’re focused on detecting collective anomalies – accounts and behavior that deviate from the norm for their userbase as a whole. But this is only good at detecting spam accounts and highly automated behavior, not the sophisticated techniques of disinformation campaigns.”

Astroscreen takes a different approach, combining machine-learning and human intelligence to detect contextual (instead of collective) anomalies – behavior that deviates from the norm for a specific topic. It monitors social networks for signs of disinformation attacks, informing brands if they’re under attack at the earliest stages and giving them enough time to mitigate the negative effects.

Lomax Ward, partner, Luminous Ventures, said: “The abuse of social media is a
significant societal issue and Astroscreen’s defence mechanisms are a key part of the solution.”

Marketing platform startup Adverity raises $12.4M in round led by Felix Capital

Marketers get a lot of incoming from the data they have to deal with, bound up in hundreds of spreadsheets and reports, making it time consuming and tricky to get value out of. Tech companies like Datorama and Funnel.io have appeared to try and lighten this load.

Adverity is a data intelligence platform also playing his this space by applying AI to produce actionable insights in real-time.

Founded in 2015, it’s a cloud agnostic SaaS platform compatible with Amazon, Google and Microsoft which provides data to destinations such as SQL databases, Snowflake, AWS Redshift, SAP HANA. Its business model is based on yearly subscription fees.

It’s now closed an €11 million ($12.4 million) Series B funding round, bringing the total amount raised to date to €15 million ($17 million). The investment is led by London-based Felix Capital, with participation from Silicon Valley’s Sapphire Ventures and the SAP.iO fund. The company now plans to use its war chest to expand into the US market.

In addition to the latest round of investors, Adverity continues to be backed by existing investors including, Speedinvest, Mangrove Capital (early backer of Skype, Wix.com and Walkman), 42cap, and local Austrian company the AWS Founders Fund.

Adverity’s latest AI-powered product Presense is currently under closed beta testing for selected clients and will be launched later this year.

Alexander Igelsböck, CEO and Co-Founder of Adverity, commented: “Every company wants and needs to be data-driven. This is especially true in marketing where the fragmentation of data, and complexity in getting insights from it, poses a huge challenge for CMOs. Adverity’s mission is to solve those challenges by eliminating the hurdles facing companies today.”

Adverity’s clients include companies such as IKEA, Red Bull, Mediacom, Mindshare and IPG. Headquartered in Vienna, Austria, the company has offices across London, Sofia and Frankfurt.

Sasha Astafyeva, Principal at Felix Capital, commented: “Data is a powerful tool for engaging customers and Adverity helps marketers harness the power of their data to make better decisions, grow their business and better serve their customers.”

The company’s founding members are Alexander Igelsböck, Martin Brunthaler and Andreas Glänzer. Igelsböck previously headed a startup incubator in Austria (KochAbo GmbH) and prior to that was VP Product Management at VeriSign Inc, where he met Brunthaler, who was Director of Engineering. Glänzer’s experience was gained in a sales role at Google and as Regional Head of iProspect. The three previously founded a price comparison technology company that was acquired by Heise Media in Germany.

Wonderloop’s networking app lets you swipe left on video profiles instead of pictures

There isn’t much left to be done in online networking apps. We are all familiar with professional (LinkedIn), social (Facebook), realtime (Twitter), and dating (Tinder, Bummble etc). But profile photos of the people you’re interacting with only get you so far. And we’ve all known that person who looked smart in the photo and turned out to be not so amazing in real life. Photos don’t communicate a person’s energy, body language or their voice.

An app called Wonderloop hopes to solve this problem, with video profiles, like this one.

It’s now added swiping people, Tinder-style. Left for “later and right for “favorite”. In addition, you can see who’s “Nearby” with a location feature, making it more likely you may even bump into this person. How’s that for making your day more… interesting?

Founder Hanna Aase says Wonderloop is not so much “LinkedIn with video” as much as it is “About.me with video”. Why? Well, because it also has a web-platform, allowing you to share your video profile outside the app, as well as message inside it.

I must admit, it’s fair to say that the impression you get from a person from watching them for 10 seconds on a video is pretty persuasive.

Aase says Wonderloop could end up being your personal “video ID” providing each user with their unique video profile. She says Wonderloop’s aim is to create a search engine out of people on video.

“To see people on video creates trust. Wonderloop’s goal is that every person in the world should have a video identity. We want to help users get seen in this world. You use Wonderloop for the first step of turning a stranger into a potentially cool person in your life,” she added.

She thinks the app will be used by people to make new friends, connect influencers with fans, connect entrepreneurs, connect freelancers and travelers and of course a bit of dating here and there.

She’s also hoping the app will appeal to Millennials and Generation-Z who, as frequent travelers, are often into meeting people “nearby.” “We did research and were surprised to the extent the age group 16-20 wish to find new friends,” she says. For instance, apps like Jodel are used by young people to reach out to chat to complete strangers nearby (although with no names attached).

Right now the app is invite-only, but users can apply inside the app. Aase says: “We hope to do it in stages as the company grows and in a way where users feel the community is a place they feel safe and can share who they are on video. But being invite-only also makes us differentiated to all other services.”

NuvoAir raises $3M to help patients monitor respiratory diseases with AI

With air quality not improving any time soon (hello pollution!), respiratory conditions are on the rise. This has created an opportunity for startups to employ smartphones to monitor respiratory diseases with apps and smart devices.

ResApp’s smartphone app, called ResAppDx, diagnoses a wide range of respiratory illnesses accurately by using cough sounds. Healthymize listens for signals of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) when you make calls.

NuvoAir is a new digital therapeutics startup that is also tackling this problem. It has now closed a financing round of $3 million led by venture capital firm Industrifonden, one of the largest life science and tech investors in the Nordics. The round also saw participation from existing investor Investment AB Spiltan.

Aria, NuvoAir’s digital therapeutics software, sends a patient personalized care suggestions based their condition.

NuvoAir aims to make respiratory diseases measurable and more treatable. Established in 2015, NuvoAir launched a smartphone-connected “spirometer,” making real-time lung function assessment possible at home. It has now collected more than 500,000 spirometry tests in the last three years. These tests power its machine learning algorithms to provide insights to patients, their physicians and pharma companies.

Lorenzo Consoli, CEO of NuvoAir, said, “This investment and partnership can significantly advance our focus on digital therapeutics and bring to market new smart devices to help patients manage their condition while improving physicians’ clinical decisions.”

Just Eat acquires iPad POS system Practi in attempt to lock-in restaurants

Just Eat — the marketplace for online food delivery which IPO’d but which is now under increasing pressure from several avenues, not least Uber and Deliveroo — has decided to add to its ‘quiver of arrows’ by acquiring Practi, a software service that provides independent restaurants and small chains with tablet-based Point of Sale (PoS) and restaurant management systems.

The acquisition cost is an initial £6.7m ($8.7m) with further payments dependent on the business achieving certain commercial milestones.

The hope is that this will strengthen Just Eat’s hold on restaurant partners on its platform, either by deploying new tablets with new restaurants or by incorporating Practi’s software on Just Eat’s Orderpads. By using the Orderpads Just Eat will effectively ‘lock in’ these restaurants because it incorporates both PoS, cash and card payment handling, inventory management, kitchen operation and employee management systems, all within a single software package across multiple devices.

Previously, Just Eat acquired Flyt, which connects Just Eat’s platform to restaurants chains’ existing PoS systems. The Practi platform will, instead, be used to target restaurants that do not already have PoS and restaurant management systems.

Practi’s founders, Ohad Folman and Edan Folman, will stay on to manage the business.

Peter Duffy, Just Eat’s interim CEO said in a statement: “We are very excited about the acquisition of Practi. We found that many of our restaurant partners were calling for this type of software to help manage their businesses. It will play a vital role in supporting small and medium sized restaurants as it transforms how they run their restaurants and deliver the best service for customers through Just Eat.”

Leapwork raises $10M for its easy process automation platform, plans US expansion

Most work involving computers is highly repetitive, which is why companies regularly have developers write code to automate repetitive tasks. But that process is not very scalable. Ideally, individuals across an entire business would be able to create automated tasks, not just developers. This problem has created a new category called process automation. Startups in this space are all about making companies more efficient.
Most of the existing tools on the market are code-based and complicated, which tends to make it tough for non-technical people to automate anything. Ideally, you would allow them to train software robots to handle repetitive and mundane tasks.

This is the aim of Leapwork, which today announces a Series A investment of $10m, from Londons’s DN Capital and e.ventures out of Berlin. The company already has many clients, from tier one banks and global healthcare firms, to aerospace and software companies, and now plans to expand in the US. Its customers typically already have a lot of experience with tools such as Tricentis, MicroFocus, UiPath and BluePrism, but employ Leapwork when code-based tools prove limiting.

Founded in 2015 and launched in April 2017, Leapwork has an entirely visual system, backed by a modern tech stack. Instead of using developer time, staff automate tasks themselves, without writing any code, with a simple user interface that is likened to learning Powerpoint or Excel. Leapwork estimates it can save 75% of an employee’s time.

Christian Brink Frederiksen, Leapwork’s CEO and co-founder said: “About half of our business comes from the US and this investment will enable us to serve those customers better as well as reaching new ones.”

Leapwork has found traction in the areas of software testing, data migration, and robotic process automation in finance and healthcare. Based in Copenhagen, Denmark, Leapwork has offices in London, UK, San Francisco, USA, Minsk, Belarus, and Gurugram, India.

Thomas Rubens, of DN Capital, said: “From the outset we were impressed by Leapwork’s product, which we believe will change the automation landscape. Every company has repetitive tasks that could be automated and few have the developer resource to make it happen.”

The founders began in June 2015 in Copenhagen, Denmark, after having worked for almost two decades in enterprise software and business-critical IT. They launched their first pilot in July 2016 and after working with Global2000 pilot customers in the US and Europe, went live with the Leapwork automation platform in March 2017.
Prior to this funding the company was bootstrapped by the founders as both had previous successful exits.

Consolidation in Africa as classifieds player Jiji acquires their main competitor OLX

As we saw from our recent TechCrunch Battlefield in Africa last year, the continent is producing bigger and bigger tech players, and one can see this in the consolidation in the market.

Today Jiji, one of the largest marketplaces for classifieds in Africa, has acquired their main competitor on the African market, OLX, and their businesses in Kenya, Ghana, Uganda and Tanzania.

The acquisition means Jiji will now be able to access 300 million people across five markets. This is something of a coup for a company originally from Ukraine, pulling off an acquisition in one of the world’s last huge, relatively untapped regions. The transaction is supported by one of Jiji’s principal investors, Digital Spring Ventures.

Jiji is the highest rated app in Nigerian e-commerce, with more than six million unique active users and 50,000 professional sellers listing more than one million items in a rapidly growing market of 200 million people. It’s now aiming for 10 million users in the next couple of years.

Vladimir Mnogoletniy, co-founder of Jiji, commented: “This partnership is pivotal to Jiji’s future business model and success, as it paves the way for building the continent’s largest Africa-based classified business serving a market with a combined population of over 300 million in some of the world’s fastest-growing economies. We continue to act as a long-term investor in Africa and are excited by the exceptional opportunities this young and dynamic continent has to offer. In the next 2-3 years we aim to be one of the top 10 classifieds businesses in the world by traffic.”

Jiji’s main competitors in Africa are Jumia and Tonaton.

OpenGamma raises $10M in a growth funding round led by Dawn Capital

Over ten years ago, OpenGamma emerged as one of London’s new breed of FinTech startups, launching an open source analytics and risk management platform for the financial services industry. Its open architecture allowed financial services firms to develop analytics applications aimed at traders and risk managers. This open-source approach was designed to disrupt the proprietary software platforms.

Today it’s taken that vision to a new level, become something of a leader in derivatives analytics, and announced that it has raised $10 million in growth funding led by early-stage fintech and B2B software VC Dawn Capital. Existing investors Accel, CME Ventures and ex-SunGuard CEO and angel investor Cristóbal Conde also participated.

According to CrunchBase, OpenGamma has now raised a total of $50.2M in funding over 9 rounds. This included a debt financing in 2014, and rounds which included FirstMark Capital in New York, angel Lawrence Lenihan, and a strategic investment from NEX Group.

Peter Rippon, CEO of OpenGamma, explained: “Regulation has created new opportunities for firms like OpenGamma. We work with key market infrastructure providers, including CME Group, Eurex, JSCC as well as top tier banks, to ensure we have access to the models needed to solve a key industry problem: the rising cost of trading derivatives.”

With new regulation forcing firms to post billions in capital to take market positions with significant increases over the next couple of years, OpenGamma’s analytics solutions allows banks, hedge funds and asset managers to reduce the cost of trading derivatives.

The company claims that it has experienced a 300% increase in recurring revenues in the last 12 months, as well as a geographical expansion across the globe – doubling both the business’ customer base and team.

The new funding will enable OpenGamma to continue its growth strategy as it expands its teams in London, New York and Singapore.

Josh Bell, General Partner at Dawn Capital, said: “As regulation continues to drive up the cost of trading derivatives, efficient use of capital has become essential for financial institutions to maintain their business models. Top-tier global investment banks and asset managers are all turning to OpenGamma for support, attracted by the depth, coverage and speed of deployment of OpenGamma’s analytics platform.”

Focaldata thinks it has some answers for campaigners in the age of Trump and Brexit

Political parties, campaigns and brands can’t get an accurate and cost-effective understanding of opinion in small geographic areas, like the constituencies of lawmakers. This is a big problem in political campaigning. And all political campaigning now has a huge online element, as we know. We also know political turbulence is one of the defining themes of our age.

But one thing is clear: All the players want faster, cheaper, more accurate and a more granular understanding of consumers and voters. In the age of AI, survey predictions are influenced as much as so many other machine-learning technology products.

Focaldata is a U.K. startup that thinks it has some of the answers to these quandaries. Their integrated consumer analytics and survey workflow application claims to give customers a more accurate and granular picture of consumers than traditional polling using machine learning. At the same time, they say their workflow software cuts down on the cost and time that market research takes.

The idea is that they employ a new machine learning-based technique (MRP) to generate survey “results.” This new methodology can use more information (such as old survey data or public statistics) than conventional methods, which lets them get accurate predictions in small geographic areas from the same sample sizes.

Founder Justin Ibbett had done MRP manually on his laptop a few times for some existing market research firms and realized how fiddly it was. “I felt a dedicated software application would reduce the complexity whilst making the results more accessible and useful — our early incarnations just delivered a spreadsheet!” he told me.

Much of Focaldata’s business has been in politics. They have worked with the pro-Remain group Best for Britain and the anti-Racism charity Hope not Hate on combating Far Right sentiment. However, most demand is now from large brand owners, such as ABInBev, a recent client.

They now have more than 10 paying clients, including big brands like M&C Saatchi.

Competitors include YouGov, Survation, Dalia Research (a Balderton-backed company) and standard market research agencies like Kantar and Ipsos Mori.

But against traditional agencies, Ibbett says their ML-based data processing engine sets them apart, allowing them to go very granular and get more accurate over time.

The market research market is £5 billion in the U.K. alone (PwC report, 2016) and global market research is a $40 billion market.

The startup has raised a £1.1 million seed round from notable U.K. angels, including Alex Chesterman, founder of Zoopla and Martin Bolland, founder of Alchemy Partners. Previously they raised a small pre-seed round from three other angels, including Xen Lategan (backer of Magic Pony and ex-Google, former CTO of News International).

CTO and co-founder Calvin Dudek was at Google for five years as a product manager, and ran Data Science Innovation at the DWP. Chief Data Scientist Takao Noguchi is a cognitive scientist.

Brandwatch turns its war-chest on acquiring market research startup Qriously

In the past few years it’s become increasingly evident that while social media was a fantastic new way to get into the minds of people and understand what they thought in order to sell them things, you couldn’t just rely on the blathering of millions of people. You also had to literally ask them questions. At the darker end of-of the spectrum, this was used by the likes of Cambridge Analytica to first poll questions, then use the data to target audiences for dark political purposes. At the lighter end, it’s a method used every day by legitimate brands and ad agencies. But until now, most social listening agencies and most polling companies plowed different sectors of the tech industry. The news that a major social intelligence company is acquiring a research platform is an indication that these two worlds are about to come together.

Brandwatch, a leading social intelligence company, has acquired London-based SaaS research platform Qriously. Although terms have not been disclosed, the notion is clear: to fuse modern market research methods with social media listening and analytics. Qriously had previously raised $6.2M while Brandwatch has raised $65 million from European VCs Nauta Capital, Highland Europe and Partech.

Brandwatch also needs the tools Qriously has in order to differentiate itself from the legacy social listening players, thus meaning its clients won’t have to go to both a market research firm and a social listening agency.

The acquisition marks a continuation of Brandwatch’s roll-up of services that add to its offering. The October 2018 merger between Brandwatch and Crimson Hexagon created a business with around $100 million in recurring annual revenues.

The Qriously acquisition will add first-party quantitative research to Brandwatch’s total pool of brand and consumer insight and enables its customers to proactively dig deeper into their online research by launching targeted surveys, with global reach and near-immediate results.

The innovation Qriously made was to turn mobile ad-networks into a distribution platform for polling and quizzes. This hadn’t previously been done extensively before, and enabled it to, for example, predict the results of the last US election.

Qriously has developed a next-generation technology to access, via mobile ad networks in particular, over 2 billion devices all over the world in real-time. Clients include Spotify, Coinbase and P&G.

“It’s not often you meet a group of people as fresh and innovative as the Qriously team who have built a deep, technically strong solution to a problem that is on your own roadmap,” said Giles Palmer, co-founder and CEO of Brandwatch. “We’ve never met such a team who saw the world the way we do and want to join up to create something really new, but that’s what happened with Qriously.”

“The future of market research is 100 percent combining different data types,” said Christopher Kahler, co-founder and CEO of Qriously. “Prompted survey and unprompted social data surface different types of insights, and looking at them together gives you a 360-degree picture.”