Astroscreen raises £770k Seed investment led by SpeedInvest

UK-based start-up Astroscreen has secured $1M in initial funding to progress its pioneering technology which identifies carriers of disinformation on social media. Techniques include coordinated activity detection, linguistic fingerprinting and fake account and botnet detection.

The funding round was led by Speedinvest, UCL Technology Fund, which is managed by AlbionVC in collaboration with UCLB, Luminous Ventures, AISeed and the London Co-investment Fund. Social networks are now critical to how the public consumes and shares news. But they were built to reward virality, which makes them easy to manipulate and therefore to be weaponised on a global scale for commercial and political gain. Electoral interference is perhaps the best-known example, where foreign intelligence agencies are accused of using fake accounts and bots to meddle with the political process and erode trust in democracy. However, commercial brands are just as likely to be targeted, suffering powerful adverse effects. This is the focus of Astroscreen.

At the heart of disinformation attacks lie fake social media accounts – bots (automated) and ‘sock-puppets’ (human-run). These networks of bots and sockpuppets can be used in a highly organised way to spread and amplify minor controversies or fabricated and misleading content. Once an attack gains steam, it is reproduced by genuine users, influencers and then bona fide news organisations. As well as being used in politics they are increasingly being deployed in commercial assaults, already attacking global brands ranging from Nike and Starbucks to pharmaceutical giants.

Astroscreen CEO Ali Tehrani previously founded a machine-learning news analytics company which he sold in 2015, before fake news gained widespread attention.

Tehrani 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.

“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 brands.”

CTO Juan Echeverria, whose PhD at UCL was on fake account detection on social networks, made headlines in January 2017 (2) with the discovery of a massive botnet managing some 350,000 separate accounts on Twitter.

Echeverria said: “Social media platforms are saturated with fake accounts and botnets and are losing this cat-and-mouse game because botnet makers are continuously finding new ways of avoiding detection. As they incorporate conversational AI and deepfakes, these botnets will get more sophisticated by the day.”

Ali Tehrani concluded: “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 behaviour that deviate from the norm for their userbase as a whole. But this is only good at detecting spam accounts and highly automated behaviour, not the sophisticated techniques of disinformation campaigns.”

“Astroscreen takes a wholly different approach, combining machine-learning and human intelligence to detect contextual (instead of collective) anomalies – behaviour that deviates from the norm for a specific topic. Taking Brexit as an example, the inauthentic Twitter accounts that contributed to the conversation were only inauthentic in the context Brexit, and went undetected by Twitter’s scalable spam detectors. Our technology 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.”

Limitless Technology raised £5 million Series A investment from Albion, Downing Ventures and Unilever Ventures

  • Funding round has been led by AlbionVC, Downing Ventures and Unilever Ventures
  • Will allow us to continue disrupting the customer service industry by further developing our SmartCrowd™ technology and expansion across Europe, North America and Asia.
  • Currently used by global corporations including Microsoft, Unilever and Vodafone

We are delighted to announce that we have successfully raised £5million in Series A funding.

The funding is led by AlbionVC, with participation from all existing investors including Downing Ventures and Unilever Ventures. It will now enable us to continue successfully disrupting the customer service industry as we further develop our SmartCrowd™ platform.

SmartCrowd™ uses AI and crowd-sourcing to help businesses transform their customer experience by turning their most loyal customers into freelance customer experts and rewards them for providing on-demand support. Since launching in 2018, it now consists of four solutions to help businesses meet their various customer experience and insight needs – CrowdService®, CrowdCoach™, CrowdAdvise™ and CrowdFeedback™.

Limitless enables any brand to connect to its SmartCrowd™ platform in four simple steps:

  1. Build a qualified crowd of powerful Customer Experts, in any language or market through a unique digital onboarding process.
  2. Connect the SmartCrowd™ platform to the brand’s existing digital channels to maintain a single customer view.
  3. Use SmartAI™ to deliver the perfect automated response or route the task to the best Expert for a fast and helpful response.
  4. Rewarding freelance Customer Experts for resolving support queries – with Experts having the flexibility to earn on their own schedule and in their local currency.

Globally, over 100 brands are already using our SmartCrowd™ technology to deliver amazing customer experiences. This includes international and multi-product support for global enterprises such as Unilever, Microsoft, Daily Mail Group, National Express, Wargaming, Northumbrian Water and Amazon.

Brands which adopt SmartCrowd™ have seen a significant reduction in costs by up to 50%. They are also seeing a dramatic increase in customer satisfaction thanks to the benefit from having an ‘always open’ 24/7 customer service operation, in any language, due to a flexible talent pool of Experts.

With the new funding, we will further develop our core SmartCrowd™ technology to help businesses access diverse, agile and flexible talent in any language across the world. The investment will also be used to enhance our machine learning technology, which sits at the heart of our SmartAI™ solution. Limitless also intends to use the capital to aggressively grow our sales and marketing efforts in the UK and US and expand our operations in India.

Robert Whitby-Smith, Partner – AlbionVC comments, “There is an opportunity for brands to transform their customer service by leveraging the power of the crowd. Creating a customer community which engages and rewards customers for helping other customers is the future – it is better, faster and cheaper. However, executing this at scale needs a rare combination of tech savvy and deep domain expertise – which Team Limitless have in spades from the previous business they built. We are proud to support Roger and Megan achieve their exciting vision.”

Stan Sthanunathan, Executive Vice President – Consumer & Market Insights at Unilever says: “Today’s consumers want more insightful and faster responses and Limitless offers us a way to provide this by leveraging the knowledge and enthusiasm of some of our biggest brand advocates.

Today, we’ve rolled out Limitless in 5 of our global markets and we’re on track to expand this freelance service model across 19 of our global markets this year.

Unilever Ventures is passionate about investing in young and promising technologies, helping support their growth by providing access to our global network and expertise. The future looks exciting for Limitless and we are thrilled to be on this journey with them.”

Roger Beadle, CEO and co-founder of Limitless says, “We are delighted to have secured this round of funding with our investors, which will help us take our promise of ‘an on-demand, flexible talent pool of Customer Experts’ to more businesses around the world.

Morgan Stanley predicts that within 10 years 50% of US workers will be freelancers. This growth is being driven by millennials who will account for more than a third of the global workforce by 2020 according to EY, and businesses need to embrace their new attitudes and approaches. Limitless is perfectly poised to help enterprises embrace this change, whilst boosting their customer service efforts. We firmly believe that crowd sourcing, together with AI, will become an integral part of an ecosystem of technologies that will fundamentally change the future of customer engagement.”

Megan Neale, COO and Co-founder concludes, “Limitless harnesses the combined power of brand lovers, marketplace technology and good gig principles to help our clients transform customer service into a truly valued customer experience. Our vision is to completely redefine a multi-billion-dollar industry by delivering exceptional experiences for everyone. We are privileged to share that vision with Albion Capital, Downing Ventures and Unilever Ventures and look forward to a partnership that will enable Limitless to scale globally in the next 2 years.”