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My Friend AI app aims to help youngsters with mental health issues

Strategia Data Sciences is developing a platform so schools can use technology to aid their students

An image of Stephen Smith, CEO of Strategia Data Sciences, a man with short cropped grey hair wearing a T-Shirt and a dark jacket
Strategia Data Sciences CEO Stephen Sharp

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It took me a while to get what Strategia Data Sciences’ project is all about.

The company, which has offices at Canary Wharf’s tech community – Level39 – has created My Friend, a digital platform aimed at helping identify and address mental health issues in children

This is a big problem. In 2022 about 25% of those aged 17-19 were thought to have a mental health disorder (up from one in six in 2021).

Around half of such issues are thought to become established before the age of 14 and about 10% of children aged five to 16 in Great Britain may have a clinically diagnosable mental health problem.

I realise after my interview with Strategia CEO, Stephen Sharp, that comprehending what he and the team are trying to do is tough.

That’s because it requires an unpleasant admission that – despite the backdrop of grim statistics – kids are being failed by what’s currently in place and things seem to be getting worse. 

It’s not that the idea of using an AI-powered avatar to help children with their mental health is better than face-to-face human interaction.

It’s that, for many right now there isn’t really a lot of help available – few nets to catch this sort of thing early.

An image of a lonely boy looking out from a rain-streaked glass balcony
Strategia has create My Friend to help address mental health issues in children

building solutions

“Strategia was set up to create innovative technology in areas such as health, education, sustainability and the environment,” said Stephen.

“I spent about 40 years working in investment banking technology and had a good career in that.

“But I wanted to do something that could give back to society, that would help people in need.

“A colleague of mine who works in Dubai had been talking to a school out there about something completely different but there were some proper horrors that really resonated with him.

“So we started talking about how we could build a solution – an application – that might help kids in school. 

“We did some research and found there were lots of text-based things where kids could  send questions and get answers.

“But then, the next thing was they were being told they should talk to a psychologist for $150 an hour.

“We decided we didn’t want to go down that path. Instead, we’ve been working with conversational artificial intelligence since January.

“AI is transformational and we’ve got to the point where we’re running a pilot in a number of countries with children talking to our app and getting the right responses.

“It’s built on the back of ChatGPT – as everything is these days – but we’ve created the model in the middle, which controls the input and output. It’s always supportive, passive and acts as a friend.”

A girl sits alone reading a textbook in a classroom
My Friend offers children a way to interface with their school through an AI-powered app

branding My Friend

Specifically, My Friend features Kano, an avatar designed to appeal to the app’s audience of eight-to-12-year-olds.

“We’ve gone with a non-gendered super hero teddy bear and his pet dog,” said Stephen.

“We didn’t want there to be any gender or race barriers to using the app or to get involved with political issues in what we’re doing. 

“The platform works in partnership with a child’s school. Staff can monitor the conversations a child has with it so, if a kid is being naughty in class, for example, they might be able to see why.

“It’s important, of course, that the children know this up front – that they’re aware their issues can be addressed.

“The platform forms a neutral, objective interface between the child and the school and removes any bias. 

“It’s also designed to remove any concern a child might have about talking to an adult if they have a problem. 

“With My Friend, they’re talking to a character who’s on their wavelength.

“It’s not just communicating about their challenges either – during testing, children have asked Kano about dinosaurs, for example, and the platform can give them information like this too.

“At present the application is browser-based, but we’re working on turning it into an app which could be accessed via the iPads kids are routinely given.

“Today there are 740million children in primary schools – if we help only 0.01%, that’s beginning to change the way people think.”

Much has been written about the potential fragility of AI – it’s capacity to simply make up plausible-sounding facts and present them as truth in what the tech community charmingly refer to as “hallucinations”. 

But the Strategia is well aware of the potential pitfalls and believes it has created enough safeguards and guide rails to prevent My Friend pushing out nonsense.

A boy sits alone with a teddy bear on some wooden planks
Mental health issues can start early in childhood

safeguarding My Friend’s users

“We’ve been really prescriptive about the responses it gives,” said Stephen.

“If a kid wants help, the app will seek to understand what the problem is and present a congenial approach to the conversation.

“Everything we’ve seen it produce has been accurate – we’ve asked it all kinds of nasty things, including whether it will help build a bomb and we’ve always had the right responses.

“In that case, it simply told me it was illegal and changed the subject. 

“We’re precise in what we do, so our first question was how we get the technology to stay honest and protect the children using it.”

My Friend is still at the testing phase so Stephen and the team don’t yet have all the answers.

They’re still working on how schools will use the platform, which might see conversations colour-coded to help organisations identify potential problems – but feedback has been very positive.

Stephen was keen to stress that no personal data on the children is collected by Strategia, with only the schools able to see who is talking to Kano. 

Based at Level39 since October, the team is keen to collaborate locally as the project unfolds.

tacking a range of issues with My Friend

“We’re trying to build something that can address a whole spectrum of problems children face,” said Stephen.

“I live in a small village in Buckinghamshire and, until I spoke to a local school, didn’t realise the poverty in what I thought was an affluent area. 

“There, a single parent might have three jobs – their child might have to go to school alone, come back alone and cook their own tea.

“If that’s a seven-year-old, for example, that neglect is frightening.

“For children everyday life can be a problem and we want to help.

“If we save one life by doing this, it will be worthwhile.”

key details

You can find out more about Strategia Data Sciences and My Friend via the company’s website as it continues to develop and trial the technology.

Find out more about Strategia Data Sciences here

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Canary Wharf: How Pitchflix is connecting startups with investors from Level39

One Canada Square-based firm livestreams demo days and hosts in-person events for founders

Pitchflix CEO Shane Smith

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Pitchflix is a two-way street.

Put simply, the startup, based at Canary Wharf’s Level39 in One Canada Square, connects entrepreneurs with investors and investors with entrepreneurs – digitally and in person.

“It’s an attempt to oil the wheels and reduce friction,” said Shane Smith, the company’s CEO.

“When founders are trying to raise venture capital, we aim to connect them with an investor network to help them do that.

“If you’re trying to raise money for the first time as a business, that’s the toughest time for you, because you’re not on anybody’s radar.

“It’s also the toughest time for investors, because, on the basis that you’re new, there’s no history, no track record – no-one’s done any research on you.

“At that stage, both sides have a pretty tough time finding the right match.

“Given that lack of information, the most valuable thing investors have to go on is the founders themselves.

“The way to understand founders is, ideally, to sit down across the table and have a good conversation about what they’re doing.

“The problem with that, is the economics don’t stack up for the investors to arrange those conversations and physically sit in locations all over the world to have them.”

Shane founded Pitchflix to address the issue, building on a career that’s long focused on providing information to people and companies that need it.

“My background has been between technology, financial markets and research,” he said.

“I started as one of the founding team in London for what was, at the time, a small startup in the US called Bloomberg.

“I was hired to the London office originally, and I moved on from there to set up my own research business, initially in Paris, then brought it back to London.

“We ran that until 2009 when it got beaten up by the credit crunch.

“Then I switched focus to investor communications rather than research, gradually moving from large listed companies, primarily in Asia, down the scale to smaller businesses.

“Pitchflix is an exercise to connect those smaller companies with investors.

Pitchfix aims to increase the reach of demo days beyond a physical audience

“This is the most interesting part of the market, because startups are generally doing more interesting, innovative things – there’s quite a buzz at the smaller end because tomorrow’s mega corporations are being created today.”

The next best thing to sitting in a room with investors is video – how can we get a short piece from founders, even a couple of minutes, in front of them?” said Shane.

“Startups which have been through an accelerator programme will typically do a demo day at the end, where investors come to listen to founders present.

“Our approach is to help accelerators livestream their demo days so international investors can view them from wherever they are, overcoming the geographical obstacles. 

“There are firms who try to bridge that gap, but they typically operate in the corporate finance space where they are trying to broker those deals – we take a very different approach.

“We’re a media business – we help founders advertise themselves to an audience – we don’t get involved in the deals themselves.

“Pitchflix is a conduit that tries to remove friction in the connection and communication between the two parties.

“Investors might be conventional venture capital, corporate venture capital or companies looking to put money into early stage businesses.

“They might also be angel investors or angel syndicates.

“They all face similar problems and we’re trying to solve them.

“For example, if an investor decides to attend a demo day, they might only be interested in a specific sector, but this might involve sitting through pitches from 20 businesses in other fields just to see the one relevant one.

“That’s not a good use of their time.”

Founders’ pitches are hosted in video form on Pitchflix’s site

After livestreaming, Pitchflix hosts founders’ videos on its site, so investors can review them at their leisure.

“The next stage of the business was to turn that model on its head and have investors pitching to founders,” said Shane. 

“We wanted to do that because we’d observed that, while there are lots of demo day and pitch competition events all over London and the rest of the country, nobody was systematically hosting investors who could pitch to an audience of founders to tell them what they were looking for.

“We call them ‘Rev’ for reverse pitch series. We needed to find a bigger space to host them and we discovered Level39. 

“That’s where we put them on, every six weeks or so, and we have a lot of community members coming to them.

“We’re also based there. We started the business in 2019 and, as Covid restrictions, melted away, it was really hard to build a cohesive team and culture while working from home in spare bedrooms or at kitchen tables.

“We hired one person who did a fantastic job of getting up to speed from home, but we felt we needed more than that for the next people coming on board – our recent hires since we’ve been together in one place have been very quick getting into the business and are really productive.”

IN-PERSON

Pitchflix’s next Rev event is set to take place on February 27, 2024 at Level39 with further events in Singapore, Hong Kong and New York in the pipeline for March, April and later in 2024, respectively.

“Rev events are a very concise, efficient use of a founder’s time,” said Shane.

“For two hours attendees will sit and listen to up to 15 investors giving lightning, five-minute showcases of what they like to invest in and why.

“They’ll tell you how much they typically invest, whether they like to collaborate with others, whether they like to lead or follow, a lot of reference data about them, and you’ll get out of it and a sense of the personality and chemistry you might have with them.

“Is this an investor you think you can have a really productive five or 10 year relationship with?

“Are they someone you’d like to have a beer with?

“These are the kind of insights you’re not going to get unless you’re in a room with that person.

“After the presentations, there are audience questions and then there’s networking with some drinks.

“The idea for founders is it’s an opportunity to make themselves memorable, so that when they email the next day with their pitch, they’ll be on investors’ radars.”

Founders tickers for Rev events in London cost a nominal £20, aimed at ensuring those who have booked a place turn up.

At present, Pitchflix’s platform is free for both businesses and investors to use with the eventual aim of charging startups an affordable fee once the marketplace is consistently matching entrepreneurs with capital.

“This is very different from the brokering model, where those firms charge a retainer,” said Shane.

“We also don’t get involved with the production of the demo days themselves because there are tons of them happening.

“We’re just trying to make the process more efficient and extend their reach.

“Bloomberg started life as a business solving one problem – Mike didn’t have a crystal ball for the next 40 years, they were just trying to build a better mousetrap.

“There’s a sort of trend now that investors want to see how things will develop in the next five or 10 years, but you don’t need to.

“You just start with something that’s profitable, and then you explore, listen to your clients, be agile, nimble and develop.

“In our own investor presentations, we describe what we’re building and why it’s great for the market ecosystem. Have we got the full picture – no – but we’re listening.

“Very often you get the first signals about new and emerging stuff from entrepreneurs and what they’re talking about.

vWe’re recording that and analysing it will give you a pretty good indication of what’s coming down the road at 100mph, six months later.

“We have many ideas about how to develop Pitchflix and that’s something we’ll be looking at over the next few years.”

Find out more about Pitchflix here

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Canary Wharf: How Lyll aims to reinvigorate news brands as channel for SME adverts

Norwegian startup comes to Level39 as it looks to grow investors alongside the publishers it works with

Lyll CEO Camilla Frydenbø

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The idea that the way things are at the moment is how they shall continue to be.

But the world rarely stands still, especially in the world of tech.

There’s a danger in this – in getting too comfortable with the prevailing winds, lest they all too rapidly change when one isn’t paying attention.

Innovation Norway has been running its Tech Executive Accelerator (TEA) programme at Canary Wharf’s Level39, more or less since the community launched in 2013.     

Back then, people talked of Big Data, with a few early adopters whispering about the blockchain.

Challenger banks emerged, crypto wallets proliferated and there was much talk of machine learning. Now it’s generative AI.

During this period, small and medium-sized businesses (SMEs) have seen social media become the dominant marketing channel for their products and services. 

But nothing in the digital sphere is guaranteed forever – the lustre of Facebook, Instagram, X, TikTok and even LinkedIn, has started to tarnish, with the inevitable consequences of light regulation and a limited appetite or capacity for in-house moderation. 

So what of the future? Part of the answer may come from Norwegian startup Lyll – currently in Canary Wharf as part of the TEA’s latest cohort. 

Launched in June, 2023, the company aims to offer SMEs a simple, self-service approach to advertising on digital news sites and is spending six months here as it targets growth. 

While the column inches on these sites are often filled with discussions on the impact of and posts on social media, it’s perhaps easy to forget that much of the most well researched, potent and popular digital content is created by the news brands themselves, with millions of readers turning to them as trusted sources.  

“I’ve been working in marketing for 25 years and online newspapers are my favourite marketing channel,” said Camilla Frydenbø, CEO of Lyll.

“I have a lot of love for them and they are important for brand building, which companies need if they are going to grow. 

“But it hasn’t been very easy for SMEs to use this channel, because they typically have to talk to a salesperson.

“Most media businesses do not have self-service solutions, so many firms turn to social media because those platforms have made it easy to advertise and firms are welcome with any budget.

“Companies often perceive online news brands as expensive, so they don’t contact the salesperson as they feel like they need a big budget. 

“What we’ve done is create a platform that makes it even easier to advertise on these sites than it is to use social media.

“We think businesses will use these channels if they know they can place adverts on these sites with a minimum budget of £50, which most companies can afford.

“The price of an ad view is similar to what they pay on social media – that makes it competitive.”

Lyll currently has more than 5,000 news sites on its platform, spread across nine European countries – a demonstration, perhaps of the publishers’ desire to uncover new streams of revenue in a tough climate.

“Our slogan is: ‘For your growth and a free press’, because we also think in this world where everyone is talking about sustainability, if we don’t have the fourth estate we will all have a problem,” said Camilla.

“We see in countries where there are fewer journalists and news sites being read, you don’t get a high level of debate or a nuanced picture of what’s going on.

“We hope that it will be part of a business’ sustainability plan – how they choose to spend their marketing budget and what they are funding with it.

“We have more than 200 companies in Norway which have signed up to Lyll with an account, although not all are active yet.

“We see it takes a while between when people create an account and when they start advertising, but the interest is definitely there.

“Companies know they need to reach a wider, mass market and when they don’t get the effect they used to from Facebook, it’s a perfect storm because they are willing to listen now.

“If they want to be on TikTok, for example, they have to make videos three times a week, at least, and small firms may not have the resources to produce the coolest thing on the platform.

Lyll is spending time at Level39 in One Canada Square as part of Innovation Norway’s TEA Programme

“When it comes to LinkedIn, if you’re selling to consumers, then it’s not the right channel.

“Then you have women, primarily, using Facebook, and men on YouTube. That’s how the social media market is dividing right now.

“Going beyond this, bringing news sites into the marketing mix, will see firms continue their growth.”

That’s partly because the two streams serve different purposes.

Camilla said she would never encourage a company to abandon social, but spread marketing onto more than one channel.

She said: “It is important for businesses to always be better at brand building – creating something sustainable which gives them growth over time and makes them more profitable.

“A presence on national, regional or local news sites is how you do this.

“Firms need to be more patient with news sites.

“With social media, everything is so fast.

“Companies are always having to come up with new photos, videos, text – which is a little bit tiring. 

“If you are always chasing sales, doing special offers or discounts, then you will never succeed.

“Businesses that put most of their marketing budget into brand building are the ones that win the market, but you don’t do that in three months or six months.

“You need a plan which goes over several years. 

“We don’t say companies shouldn’t use social media, because we think they should. The best effect is when you use three to four channels with a single campaign.

“In Bergen, for example, we have a concert series. Until recently they were selling their tickets through Facebook. 

“But since that was declining, they wanted to try Lyll.

“They took their small budget and divided it between the two newspapers in the city.

“They told us they had never sold out faster than when they divided the budget. 

“Lyll can support what a company is doing on social media – their platforms are often more geared towards making ticket sales, but people also have to know there’s a concert on in the first place.”

Lyll’s idea will likely be welcomed by digital publishers, many of who have spent the years since the arrival of the internet attempting to thrash out viable business models.

Reach PLC, which has kept its sites such as mirror.co.uk and express.co.uk free to access, recently reported a 16% decline in digital revenues – albeit a collapse  largely blamed on Facebook’s decision to send less traffic to news brands.

Camilla said engagement with companies like Lyll could help.

“It’s been very valuable to be in London at Level39 on the TEA programme,” she said. 

“We said we were looking for investors and partnerships and we’ve had meetings with investors and big media companies.

Lyll has built a self-service portal for advertisers to access digital news sites

“The latter see that they have a need for a self-service solution but they have one concern, whether it will have an impact on jobs.

“Sales people are definitely still needed to serve large advertisers – Lyll is not built for their needs – but we think they can activate sleeping customers.

“These companies have huge customer bases that we can appeal to.

“In the end, if they don’t do anything about this problem, they can’t complain about advertising going to social media because, if it’s difficult for companies to buy space on these platforms, they won’t do it. 

“We make money by taking a small cut of the advertising spend – it’s programmatic advertising made easy.

“Another benefit is that while Google’s display network allows placement of ads on these sites, customers can’t choose where their ad appears. 

“They might be placed on strange websites or bad websites, even. These things happen and brand safety is very important.

“If you want your advert to appear on the Financial Times’ site, for example, and you think you’ll get that from Google, you’ll probably find as little as 3% of your budget will place it there and the rest could see it placed somewhere else.

“With Lyll, you get to be in front of the audience you want – you decide where your money is spent.”

As for the future, Lyll is very much eyeing expansion to London following its spell in Canary Wharf.

“The networking with the TEA programme has been fantastic,” said Camilla. “I live in Bergen, which is the second largest city in Norway but is still very small. 

“The investor pool is limited there in marketing tech.

“That’s why we wanted to come to London – here you have the best marketing people in Europe and the things we’ve been able to do, the little network we’ve been able to build – we’d have never been able to do this from Bergen. 

“I think expanding to London would be a natural step for us.

“When we get more funding, the next thing is to hire a salesperson and they would have to be an English-speaking person who can talk to media companies around the globe and try and get them into collaboration with us.”

While the future of media online remains uncertain, the plummeting revenues at X following Elon Musk’s takeover of the platform and its descent into a frequently toxic space which companies are keen to avoid, could well be a cautionary tale.

With brands eager for a safe place to reach people, perhaps Lyll will help reignite a channel that’s been looking for a fresh approach for some time.

Follow this link to find out more about Lyll

You can find out more about Level39 here or Innovation Norway here

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Canary Wharf: How WyzePay aims to save its users cash on regular purchases

Level39-based startup uses pre-pay to guarantee retailers income and consumers discounts

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What if I told you I could take £400 and instantly give you an extra £100 to spend at a specific venue in Canary Wharf?

Well, I can’t, but WyzePay can.

The startup, now based at tech community Level39 in One Canada Square, relies on the premise that businesses will be prepared to offer better prices to customers who pre-pay for their services.

Suppose, for example, I get a coffee from the same place every day on my way into the office (yes, I’m not hybrid working on Fridays or anything like that).

It’s habit – a ritual that I enjoy – and it costs me £3.20 per day.

For the sake of argument, let’s say I work 47 full weeks each year, so the bill would be £752. 

Provided I’m happy to use WyzePay – and cough up the cash up front in chunks of £400 – that cost will only be £601.60.

I wonder what I’ll buy with the £150.40 that I’ll save? 

“The current way of paying for things – credit and debit cards – has been around since the middle of last century,” said Ian Rae, CEO  at WyzePay.

“From a consumer perspective, we thought there could be a better way of doing things.”

Born in Mile End, the grandson of a docker, things have somewhat come full circle for Ian.

During an extensive career in technology for financial services firms, he’d moved steadily eastwards ending up in Hainault before heading back in, to Wapping High Street.

Ironically, his aunt told him that his grandad hated the building he wound up moving into as it was formerly a sugar warehouse and the commodity was too heavy to nick.

In a sense – albeit completely legal – WyzePay is also about getting something for nothing. Ian and co-founder Joe Channer decided to relocate the firm to the heart of Docklands, following a spell proving the concept in Queen’s Park.

They are now engaged on applying its offering across the Canary Wharf estate to demonstrate its benefits both to consumers and businesses.

“When developing the idea, we looked at Starbucks, which in 2018 put its loyalty scheme on an app and raised about $1.5bn in a matter of months,” said Ian.

“There was obviously something in the idea that people would be willing to prepay for things they were going to do anyway and that would benefit the retailer.”

For the consumer, the attraction is simple.

Pay up front and get a discount on what you’re buying. 


WyzePay offers users the ability to buy credit in the form of coins dedicated to a specific retailer. These are then held in a digital wallet and can be spent with the venue via the app. This example shows the difference in savings by pre-paying for £30 and £500 at Boisdale Of Canary Wharf in Cabot Square

“You’re going to get a better return than from that money just sitting in a current account, so it’s a no-brainer,” said Ian.

“The merchant gets the cash up front – which is extremely valuable for a business – and the discount rewards the customer who keeps coming and loves the service.

“It’s buy now, take more later – a bit more responsible than take now and pay later.”

WyzePay is currently undergoing a growth spurt. Ian and the team are in the process of striking deals with various restaurants, bars and businesses in Canary Wharf, with some already live and available to use.

At present, coins can be purchased for The Grandstand Bar, Boisdale Of Canary Wharf, 640East and Brick Lane Bagel with each offering up to 20% – meaning an outlay of £400 gets you £500 of credit at the venue.

Seoul Bird and Obica have also signed up, offering maximum discounts of 11% and 15% respectively. The minimum discount for all venues is 10%.

WyzePay’s tech is blockchain based, allowing it flexibility of form in the future although, at present, credit bought for one business can only be used at that venue.

“We’re in active discussion with several other businesses – it’s important to get the right fit,” said Ian.

“In this phase we’re aiming for 10-20 retailers by the end of October with about 1,000-2,000 consumers using the platform.

640East is offering up to 20% off via WyzePay

“That allows us to unlock some more funding and then to push on with the project.

“Canary Wharf is a great place to do this because it’s that community approach which fits with what we want to do further down the line.

“We have an idea to explore a community coin, where instead of spending the credit with a specific retailer, it would be possible to use it with any of the retailers that are signed up.

“We’d also like to set up an exchange where credit could be moved from one business to another.

“Then it becomes an alternative way of paying for things and a way to disrupt some of the lazier players in the market.

“If you look at gift cards, for example, you have an industry that’s really quite inefficient.

“It’s well known that even though it’s digital, a percentage of the money that’s been paid just sits there and isn’t spent.

“That’s no good if I’m the giver or the person receiving the gift – we think there is a better way of doing things. 

“As a business, our revenue comes from a percentage on the purchase of coins through WyzePay, which is charged to the merchant.

“However, every time you use a credit card there are charges they are paying and we cost less than that.”

Boisdale Of Canary Wharf is offering up to 20% off on the platform

Right now, WyzePay is all about awareness – signing up businesses for its platform and attracting users to give it a go.

That includes the likes of sponsoring the Action For Kids Beach Volleyball in Canada Square Park, which runs until September 28, 2023, and reaching out to companies on the estate to explain the offer.

“We’re focused on hospitality  because it’s easy for people to get their heads around,” said Ian.

“But really WyzePay can be applied wherever there’s a supply chain.

“The options are endless – but it’s better to start somewhere to demonstrate what it does.

“We’re also very clear that we won’t be for everyone – the lazy, rich and indolent, for example. It’s for people who want to get a good deal.

“Our dream is that WyzePay will one day be used as a verb.

“Imagine you’re in a restaurant and someone says: ‘I’ll WyzePay that’.”

That, of course, would put it in the big leagues alongside hoover, google and, increasingly, Uber (which hasn’t quite dropped the capital letter yet).

Just remember, it got big on the Wharf first.

Find out more about WyzePay here

Seoul Bird is offering up to 11% off via WyzePay

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Canary Wharf: How Skillwork provides software services to companies of all sizes

Jan Gasiewski and Ali Youssef created the Level39-based firm after meeting at UCL on the estate

Skillwork founders Jan Gasiewski and Ali Youssef

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Business is all about relationships and it’s pretty clear there’s real strength at the heart of Level39-based Skillwork.

It’s also emblematic of how London provides the crucible that allows individuals to come together, fused and more powerful as a consequence.

In a nutshell, Skillwork provides software development services to startups, small firms and corporates looking to run innovative breakaway projects that fall outside their main areas of operation.

But at its heart lies much more than technical prowess. It’s the enthusiasm, energy and passion of two men – co-founders Jan Gasiewski and Ali Youssef.

From Poland and Bulgaria respectively, the pair met and founded the business in 2020 while both studying for their masters degrees in entrepreneurship at University College London’s School Of Management in Canary Wharf’s One Canada Square.

Both had previously studied in the UK – at Lancaster (Jan, business administration) and Northampton (Ali, computer software engineering) – before heading to the capital with perhaps a sense of something unfinished.

“Lancaster is a great university,” said Jan.

“But what you need if you want to go into business is exposure and the nearest city is Manchester. Even that is just far away enough that nobody goes.

“I’d applied for placements at Microsoft and HP. At the assessment centre for the former I didn’t know how to approach it – everyone just said: ‘Be yourself’.

“But the feedback was that all the product work was done in the States and that I didn’t show much human emotion, so I got into HP instead. 

“It remains my only ‘real’ job, but there wasn’t much work to do so I wound up mostly reading books rather than getting experience.”

Ali said: “I’d gone back to Bulgaria, thinking I was going to be a software engineer and I got a job.

“But on the day I was supposed to start, I called the guy and said that I didn’t want to do it. 

“Then I told my dad that I wanted to study entrepreneurship instead and his response was that  business courses were for people who didn’t know what they wanted to do in life.

“But I applied to UCL, got in and that was my first experience of London – coming to Canary Wharf I was so shocked because I had never seen a place like it in my life. 

“It was a place you could talk to anybody – I was having a coffee with a guy and he turned out to be a fund manager in control of millions of dollars. 

“When he asked me what I did, I had to say I was a student.

“In Bulgaria I thought people like these were superheroes that I would never meet in real life.

“But London showed me you could talk to people who were very successful. It changed everything.”

Jan, in a “rare display of extroversion” messaged his course mates at UCL to see if any of them would be up for meeting over a drink.

Ali was the only respondent, and they bonded over food at Honest Burgers swapping tales of their fathers. 

Skillwork’s London base is at Level39 in One Canada Square

“Both our dads had businesses,” said Jan.

“We both grew up looking up to them and both were screwed over quite badly by their business partners.”

Their friendship flourished and they decided to go into business together, with Skillwork founded in 2020 while they were still studying at UCL.

Now based at Canary Wharf’s tech community, Level39 at One Canada Square, it employs some 17 people in London and Bulgaria.

“We always say our partnership is the cornerstone of the business,” said Jan. 

“Because of our fathers’ experiences, we created a set of rules when we started to ensure that nothing like that could happen to us.

“We are very transparent with each other and love working together.”

“We really wanted to be very entrepreneurial from the start,” said Ali. “We were surrounded by people in that environment both at UCL and at home.

“It’s also about an acceptance of potential failure and an appetite for risk.

“To start with, we had no experience, so we decided to plug ourselves into the world of startups and build up knowledge as we went, using that as a catalyst to create something.

“Today we work with small businesses and corporate innovation labs and the core of what we do is software development for those clients.

“We like to mix pragmatism with technology.

“You get people who come to us all guns blazing saying that they’re going to build an AI model to do something incredible but they haven’t yet got any traction.

“So we might apply the brakes there and persuade them to go one step at a time. On the corporate side, we are leaning towards what’s called venture building, where a big company decides it needs, for example, a digital presence, and brings in help from outside to help it develop one.

“So we sit down and discuss with them problems which they are interested in solving, and then we help them to see what ideas might be a potential business plan.

“Then we help them build that product up, and then they take it over and run it.

“We’ve been around now for a little over three years and in that time we’ve been able to work with the likes of pharmaceutical giant GSK and fusion power company Helion.

“We’ve also managed to build all this without any investment. We now have employees who rely on us and fortunately we have a good, strong network of mentors.

“Generally speaking what’s happened is that our success comes from our clients’ success.

“We’ve worked with the majority of our clients since day one and many have seen a huge degree of success.

“They’re all big-name people, so it’s all going very well as far as our reputation is concerned.

“We’re now in a much healthier position, with strong cash-flow and a sound profit margin. We’re now looking outwards to expand.”

While Skillwork’s technical operations take place in Bulgaria, London remains key to the business’ plans for growth.

Having studied at UCL on the 38th and 50th floors of One Canada Square remaining in the tower was a natural step. 

“It was quite prestigious for us to come to Level39 – it was a marketing thing as well, because meeting clients here makes a good impression,” said Jan. 

“I also think it’s one of the best spaces in London. If your working environment is good, then your work will be good and we’re very fortunate that we can afford to be here. We have some clients in Dubai and that might be a place we expand into. 

“Our strength lies in the fact that we have contacts in so many countries and the ability to access them.

“One thing to remember is the UK is and always will be a global power.”

Ali added: “That was the key benefit for us of coming to the UK – when we came here, we were exposed to all these different cultures.

“London isn’t going to go under anytime soon. The reason we’re looking outwards is that we’re a bootstrap business, with not too much cash in the bank, so we have to keep expanding.

“There are only two choices – you go up or you go down. Out next step is to become innovation leaders in the Middle East for anything digital – that’s our ambition.”

Who would bet against them?

Read more: See the moment One Canada Square was topped out

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Canary Wharf: How Alchemy Machines provides smart transcription services

AI driven platform is set to launch in November 2022 aimed at businesses in the legal sector

Alchemy Machines platform could make note-taking by hand a thing of the past

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Singer, martial artist, entrepreneur.

These are Dia Thanki’s passions but it’s in the third where our chief interest lies.

So it’s not Motown classics or her practising the graceful forms of Wing Chun Kung Fu that will fill this space, It’s her latest business venture.

Alchemy Machines, the company she founded and runs as CEO, is set to launch its first product in November following two years of development.

Based at Level39 – Canary Wharf’s tech community and workspace at One Canada Square – the idea for the business grew from a personal experience.

“I was involved in a car accident quite a few years ago,” said Dia.

“I was coming off the motorway, going downhill and there was a lot of traffic ahead – it was gridlocked.

“I stopped my car but there was a van going at top speed, which crashed into the back of my vehicle – leaving me with whiplash and chronic back pain.

“As a result I was having a lot of meetings with my personal injury lawyer, but the discomfort I was in meant I wasn’t able to focus on what was being said.

“I decided to look for an app that could transcribe voice to text, but the technology was generally very primitive at the time.

“It was then that I thought how wonderful it would be if meetings could be automatically transcribed accurately with who was speaking and when. 

“People could then read or listen back and there would be an audit trail.”

Dia had been exposed to the emerging area of artificial intelligence (AI) as a student, first at Cass Business School (since renamed Bayes Business School) and then later during a masters in management information systems at Cranfield University.

“Back then, no-one really cared about it – it was a research topic, but there were very few real-life implementations,” she said.

“But I was fascinated with its potential and my final year thesis was in the area of multi-agent systems.

“It was all about process modelling using software agents to be able to replicate real-world phenomena to convert them into a virtual world. 

“That’s when I began to think about the endless possibilities of a technology like AI.”

However, life took Dia in a different direction, as after graduating, a career as a singer beckoned and she eventually set up a business as the founder of label Diamanté Records.

After pursuing that course for a little over four years, Dia changed heading, going on to discover a strength in project management.

“That’s really my forte – starting with a concept for a web application or a mobile app and taking it from idea to a tangible product,” she said.

“In the process of doing that, I was working with developers, designers both onshore and offshore, globally for organisations such as BT, BUPA and Apple.

“Just before I set up Alchemy Machines, I was working for Tech Nation which is very well known in the tech ecosystem.

“I was its Future 50 programme manager – curating events for the brand and through that work I became fascinated with the world of startups.

“Then Alchemy Machines got a grant offer and there was a need to focus on the company full time and build a team.”

Alchemy Machines founder and CEO Dia Thanki

With machine learning having taken off in the intervening years, it was time for Dia to explore the creation of something that has been in the back of her mind since she sat in the room with those lawyers.

“I’d reached out to various computer scientists, people who had worked at Google and Amazon and senior researchers – had lots of coffees and built up my knowledge,” she said.

“I did a lot of different courses and then found some money to build a prototype, initially from Innovate UK, which is funded by the Government.

“The reason we chose to focus on the legal sector was that there seemed to be a demand, although the product we have developed could be as relevant in healthcare or financial services.

“Alchemy Machines solves the problem of unlocking workflow productivity for corporate professionals.

“The way we do that is to develop a voice intelligence platform that can transcribe sector-specific speech into text, and then also analyse those conversations and summarise them. It’s a feature-rich voice intelligence platform.

“People confuse us with an AI transcription company, but Alchemy Machines is much more than that.

“Given the high rates at which people leave jobs in the legal sector and everything that’s going on in the world at the moment, now is the time for a technology like this to really come to the fore.

“While there are other areas where this kind of technology has been prevalent for a while, that hasn’t really been the case in the corporate and legal worlds.

“I think that’s because they haven’t embraced innovation as fast, although in recent years they have been forced to do so, partly because of the consolidation that’s happening in the sector.

“Legal firms were some of the last to embrace email, for example, but they are now using cloud technology with many companies migrating – it’s only a matter of time before everyone in the market follows.

“People are very risk-averse in the sector.

“There’s a lack of understanding about AI machine learning and sometimes that triggers fear, although it can also trigger excitement.

“There are many offerings out there and it can be difficult for businesses to differentiate.

“But we have a clear focus, we know that being GDPR compliant, for example, is very important for companies in the sector and we have worked with Legal 500 firms to build feasibility scenarios and really test our platform before launch.

“It works like this – let’s assume there’s a dispute resolution case within intellectual property law.

“A group of lawyers – a senior associate, a trainee and a client – are having a virtual meeting to discuss the case.

“Normally, the trainee lawyer would be typing out or writing notes before producing a final version in consultation with the senior associate before it’s given to the client or stored in-house.

“That’s a huge waste of time – especially for trainee lawyers who want to get their hands on high-value casework and not spend their time on boring admin tasks.

“It might be useful for them for a couple of months as part of their training, but afterwards it becomes tedious admin work.

“With Alchemy Machines, all they would need to do would be to press ‘record’ when the Zoom or Microsoft Teams meeting starts.

“The software then sits in the background and, for a one-hour meeting, it would take about 15 or 20 minutes to generate the report in our web application.

“There, the user will find the audio file, the transcription, the analysis and the summaries.

“That will include things like the ratio of who is speaking, the total number of people on the call and a sentiment analysis expressed as a percentage, based on whether mostly positive or negative words were used.

“The platform also tracks the duration of the meeting and the accuracy of the voice recognition itself and these are just the things we can measure now.

“I’m super excited for the launch because this wasn’t a product that was easy to create – it’s very complex because of the machine learning elements, but also the amount of time that’s gone into testing it with real-life users to ensure we’ve built something that’s simple, intuitive and valuable.

“The feedback has been phenomenal.

“I was speaking to a firm we’ve been trialling the platform with and they thought that our product was both more accurate and easier to use than a very well funded American competitor.

“Creating this product and this business has been one of the most challenging experiences of my life because it has demanded such a level of focus and resilience – and I trained as a martial artist for five years.

“There have been two really big challenges.

“The first is the same for any tech company selling solutions to large corporations and that’s establishing credibility.

“The second has been fundraising. There are still very few women seeking investment in businesses in general and especially in the tech and STEM sectors and that makes it tough.

“That’s slowly beginning to change and there are a few different initiatives that are encouraging girls and women to embrace technology and see the potential of it. 

“As a business, we have some key targets to try and attract more women to join the sector and one of our machine learning engineers is a woman, so it’s been a great experience to share this journey with her.

“I hope many more will come to work in tech for Alchemy Machines or others.” 

Dia will be speaking at LegalEx at 2pm on November 23, 2022, at Excel in Royal Docks. Alchemy Machines’ platform is set to officially launch next month.

Read more: How Bureau is offering creative workspace in Greenwich

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Canary Wharf: How Utilidex helps its customers manage their energy

Co-founder and director of the Level39-based company talks billing and climate change optimism

The topic of energy is ever-present in the headlines in 2022
The topic of energy is ever-present in the headlines in 2022

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The topic of energy is seldom out of the news at present.

There’s the government plan to cap household bills at an average of £2,500 through 2023 with six months of equivalent support for businesses at a cost of more than £100billion. 

Then there’s the longer term problem that, unless humanity brings down global carbon emissions by finding ways to generate the power we need in more environmentally friendly ways, then our activities on this planet will be the end of our species.

Whatever is going on in the market or with the planet, organisations’ ability to accurately know their own usage and impact is essential.

That’s where Utilidex comes in. Founded in 2012, the company is based at Level39, Canary Wharf’s tech community, spread across various floors of One Canada Square.

“We create software for businesses, the public sector and industry,” said co-founder and director Mike McCloskey.

“We do three things. Firstly, we do billing and, by default, bill validation for our customers.

“Secondly, we handle energy procurement – that means buying energy for the future for large corporates and industrials particularly.

“The reason we do that is so companies are less exposed to big changes in prices, to mitigate big shocks in the market.

“Then thirdly, from the data we receive, we create, assess and monitor the carbon footprint of an organisation based on the latest conversions.

“These actually change every year based on how much renewable energy is in the system.

“Once you have that data, which tends to be in half-hourly granularity in the UK, you can make observations – a business can monitor things like how much energy is being used when a property is vacant or a floor is empty in a building.

“You can work out things like energy intensity per square foot and then compare different buildings to see how they differ.

“That’s how you start to understand whether you’re wasting energy.

“Once you start looking at data in this highly granular form, then the observations become more interesting.

“These days, companies are devoting a bit more time to this – they are carbon aware – but even prior to that there was still a requirement for people working in facilities management to understand day-on-day, week-on-week, month-on-month, whether the organisation was making energy reductions and procuring power more effectively.

“These are the sorts of things we try to inform our customers about.

“With our software, it’s all about usability and understanding how the system works – getting as much benefit as you wish and deciding how much activity you can and want to devote to energy.

“In terms of value, we can measure the impact of projects and behavioural change – for example, swapping to LED light bulbs.

“The data can provide the justification for doing things like that.

“We also do the basic things like ensuring our customers’ bills are accurate.

Utilidex co-founder Mike McCloskey
Utilidex co-founder Mike McCloskey

“If your bill is £5million, then you’ll want to know if it’s correct or whether you’re under or over.

“It could be that a company is still being billed for a property it no longer owns, that the rates have changed or that the meter data is either not coming through or has been poorly estimated.

“There’s a lot of talk about energy suppliers over-billing, but in my experience, they’re just as likely to under-bill which is equally problematic if there’s a shock at the end of the year and it wasn’t in the budget.

“Traditionally much of this work was done manually, which was time consuming and prone to error, so we do it digitally.”

Utilidex, which has recently added water to the list of utilities its software supports, did not spring fully-formed from the minds of its founders – Mike and co-founder and CEO Richard Brys.

Instead it is a company where change and evolution have shaped its activities, growth and direction.

“When you start a business in the utility sector, especially if you’ve got some experience, you usually have a plan,” said Mike.

“But as the market evolves there has to be re-calibration and sometimes chucking everything out of the window and starting again.

“All these things happen in a dynamic fashion, but you have to adapt to those changes to stay in business. 

“We were very lucky. Our first two corporate customers – Bourne Leisure and Aviva – had massive environmental awareness in 2014 and still do today. 

“Their interest drove us into an area where we had to learn quite quickly what had to be done to support behavioural change in buildings.

“Nowadays, every organisation above a certain size in the UK has a carbon target.

“These are set at board level, so have to be adhered to, and there are lots of opportunities where our data can be used either by consultants, developers or sales providers to build a business case for a project.

“We want to build our business in the UK and grow it here – there’s a lot to do.”

One of the parts of its business  Utilidex hopes to expand is the ways it supports organisations to reduce their carbon emissions.

Mike says industrial companies will invest in making their own energy
Mike says industrial companies will invest in making their own energy

“I’m actually more optimistic now about climate change than I was eight months ago,” said Mike.

“Sadly, that’s down to the rocketing energy prices.

“They will cause a dark winter where energy conservation becomes really important for financial survival, be that for households or businesses.

“The impact of this will accelerate the process because it will force everybody’s hands and that should be a good thing for the planet.”

While Mike said there were no easy fixes for businesses facing escalating bills, he said some would be in a position to take action.

“It’s a massive problem and will need to be addressed in a variety of ways,” he said.

“One way for organisations to do that is to become both producers and consumers of energy as well as investing in batteries to help avoid peak rate tariffs.

“Where firms have the capital, now would be a really good time to invest in wind or solar – and make their own energy. That’s the way industrials will need to go.

“It’s also good because it creates additionality as well – there’s one more solar panel or wind turbine generating power that can be used or fed back into the grid.”

Read more: How Third Space helps Wharfers make the most of their time

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com

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Canary Wharf: How Unifi.id delivers tech that helps firms cut carbon in their buildings

Level39-based company’s real-time occupancy data designed to help reduce energy wastage

Unifi.id CEO and founder Paul Sheedy

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“You cannot manage what you can’t measure,” said Paul Sheedy, the CEO and founder of Unifi.id.

“The one thing we focus on is giving clients the right measurement tools so that they can manage their buildings better.”

In the mouth of a lesser individual, technology designed to track building occupancy in real time and adjust systems such as lighting, heating and air conditioning accordingly might seem a little dry.

But Paul positively vibrates with passion when it comes to his specialist subject.

On the one hand there’s the engaging Irish lilt of a Dubliner and a glint in the eye.

On the other there’s a burning frustration and exasperation that more isn’t being done to tackle climate change and humanity’s continued overuse of resources.

He’s disarming, funny and deadly serious.

“We talk a lot about smart buildings,” he said, waving a hand to indicate the London skyline stretching out to the City and beyond as we gaze out of the 39th floor of One Canada Square in Canary Wharf.

“But 96% of buildings around the world are not smart.

“What we’re trying to do is deliver the things companies need to actually make them smarter.

“In most buildings, energy wastage is about 30% – just think of that in the wider context of cutting emissions and gas and electricity prices rising so quickly.

“My focus is all about using less energy and so lowering organisations’ carbon footprint very, very rapidly.”

Unifi.id's long range RFID cards are logged by its detectors
Unifi.id’s long range RFID cards are logged by its detectors

Based at Canary Wharf’s tech community Level39, Unifi.id has developed technology embedded in entry and exit swipe cards that allow its detectors to log employees as they pass key points in a building. 

Paul is quick to stress this isn’t about tracking the exact movements of individuals as they go about their day, but rather knowing who is in what general area at any given time and then using that data in a number of different ways.

“The lingering effect of the lockdowns is a good example,” he said. “Almost all buildings are being run as they were pre-Covid.

“Companies have all their cleaning staff, their restaurant staff and security staff in as though the occupancy was the same.

“But some buildings still have only around 2% of staff in on a Friday.

“That those buildings are being run in the same way is ridiculous.

“Before Covid, the way buildings were occupied was consistent, but now there’s not a single one that we run that has any consistency.

“Occupancy is so sporadic and it can be extreme on Mondays and Fridays.

“It’s criminal that all the lights are on, the air conditioning is cooling every floor, with only a fraction of the staff in.

“That’s why our technology can have an impact – the more we monitor, the better our predictive analysis gets. For example, we can see the effect of external factors. 

“We see that about 7%-12% fewer people come to the office on a Thursday if it’s raining.

“In contrast, rain on a Tuesday hardly affects anything and we think there’s a psychological reason for that because if you’ve been working from home on Friday and Monday, by Tuesday you’ll be feeling a need to return to the office despite the weather.

“On a Thursday, you might just think it doesn’t matter so much, especially if you’re working at home or off on the Friday.

“Then you have other factors such as train strikes, which can affect occupancy over an entire week.

“Occupancy detection also allows building owners working with us to tell the buildings in advance so they can adapt – keeping floors closed and turning down the air con, for example. 

“What we’re really trying to say to organisations is that they can adapt to this new way of working, but there will be consequences, so they may need to use hot-desking because certain areas won’t be open.”

The key for Unifi.id is giving organisations this ability to track change so they can adapt what their buildings are doing in real time, rather than simply guessing what’s happening.

Paul says energy is wasted in the vast majority of buildings
Paul says energy is wasted in the vast majority of buildings

“We think there will be a change,” said Paul.

“People working from home, paying for all the lighting and heating, will recognise that it would be cheaper for them to go to work, so it will get busier later in the year.

“In many sectors where there is flexibility, we already know what’s happening.

“Staff are seeing that it’s the right time to go back to work, socialise and interact with other people again.”

Greater numbers back in buildings makes Unifi.id’s technology even more relevant, given its obvious safety benefits.

Should a building catch fire, for example, knowing exactly how many people are in it and where they are is potentially life-saving information for the emergency services.

“This is something I’m particularly passionate about, because back in Dublin when I was a child, we had 48 of our neighbours die in a dance hall fire – they couldn’t get out of the building,” said Paul.

“What we want to do for the London Fire Brigade and for the tenants of buildings is to bring in a new policy where, in real time, if something does go wrong, the emergency services and building managers know the occupancy of the building.

“That means they can monitor the evacuation of the building and could save firefighters’ lives if they then don’t need to go in.

“Also we look at how many people in a building have mobility issues and where they are, so efforts can focus on getting them out safely.

“People don’t always do sensible things when it comes to an evacuation. 

“We have mechanisms in place where, if we can see people heading the wrong way, a completely automated communication is sent to their mobile to tell them where to go and what to do to get to the ground floor, even if that’s to avoid a certain evacuation route.”

Paul created Unifi.id following the success of Symphony Retail AI, a company he co-founded that analyses loyalty card transaction data to better understand the behaviour of shoppers.

Originally conceived to create beacon technology – the idea of sending messages from companies to people’s phones based on their location and profile – his firm switched its focus to property when it eventually became clear in the advertising world that this was a non-starter.

“I hate to admit failure, but I will,” said Paul, who has been based at Level39 since it launched as a tech accelerator hub in 2013.

“The world was convinced that beacon technology was going to be the next big thing in advertising, but it never happened.

“No retailer anywhere in the world ever made it work to detect the right customer at the right time to send them the right offer.

“In reality it didn’t work because it didn’t think about the individual and what they would have to do. 

“So now we focus on making technology that isn’t dependent on people doing certain things to make it work – the more you do that, the better your product is going to be.

“It’s more difficult for the company, but hey, I wouldn’t get out of bed if I didn’t know it was going to be a challenging day ahead of me.

“I enjoy squeezing the grey matter and the brains of brilliant people I work with to find what piece of physics we can break, bend or enhance.

“So we transformed into a proptech company, delivering simple essential data to those managing buildings so they can make them more efficient and better for the environment.

“Over the past two years, it’s not been a great time to be working in occupancy technology, so a lot of what we did in 2020 was to go back to our clients and say: ‘This will end, tell us what we could do to be even better after Covid’. 

“With their responses, my tech team sat down and we just worked relentlessly on building new solutions, working out what the next steps would be.

“We saw that the market was moving from card-based access control to apps.

“But we know this doesn’t make sense because people don’t tap in and out so much using an app, whereas the RFID technology in our cards  means we automatically detect people walking into or out of a building or past our detection points.

“We realised that the way to get around this was to develop a facial recognition system. 

“We only hold the vectors of a face in the camera, and only when an employee of the company walks in or out of the building – this would be detected and put in the database of who is in the building.

“Then we’d mesh that with 3D counting cameras – with these, we don’t know who you are, but we do know how many people pass them, so in reality we have absolute accuracy on the usage of each floor of a building.

“This means that if we do have an evacuation, for example, we know the numbers of people on each floor and we can detect them as they enter each stairway, so we can see the flow and quickly identify where there might be blockages or problems and allow the fire brigade to get to them.

“We really believe that this will become a global system, which will go into major cities around the world, like Dubai and New York.

Paul is clear that Unifi.id’s technology cannot be used to monitor the exact position of employees – this isn’t about tracking who’s at which desk and how many trips they take to the toilet in a day.

He said this would not only be an invasion of privacy on an ethical level, but also that such data would not be very useful.

“We have been careful with every client that we will never be a Big Brother solution – we’re only detecting people as employees or visitors who are allowed access to a particular floor of a building,” he said.

“Secondly, we will never put our technology into places like toilets or cigarette-smoking areas. If an employer wants to do that, they will be doing it without our technology. That’s not what this is about.

“One of my key points is that it should be actionable data, which would deliver the best solution, not just collecting data for the sake of it.

“The world isn’t taking climate change seriously enough.

“We’re failing on every single metric and we have to realise this isn’t about governments – its about organisations and individuals making the right choices on every single thing they do. We have to contain energy with every single device we use. 

“What the UK does have is an amazing ecosystem of accelerators for technology companies and a lot of them are now focused on proptech. 

“We’re now working in collaboration with a lot of those companies and, because we’re working with them, this country is now at the forefront of this sector going forward. 

“We work with people on LED lighting and automated building management systems and by using our data, businesses can rapidly cut energy wastage now.”

Read more: How Ultimate Performance helps its clients achieve their goals

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Canary Wharf: How Cryptoslate helps readers make sense of cryptocurrency

Co-founder and CEO Nate Whitehill talks WordPress, websites, coins and Canary Wharf

Nate Whitehill is co-founder and CEO of Cryptoslate
Nate Whitehill is co-founder and CEO of Cryptoslate

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How does one become a cryptocurrency millionaire?

Since Bitcoin emerged in 2009 and investment became possible, it’s a question that’s been either idly or actively present in an increasing number of minds. 

With a blizzard of coins now traded it’s a world of complexity where invention and innovation are pushing at the edge of what’s possible in terms of digital finance. Prices rise, crash and rise again.

Stablecoins lose their stability and you can be certain the next idea or gimmick is just around the corner.

For Nate Whitehill, this ever-changing story and the global thirst for information about it, has made him a millionaire in a different sense. 

An entrepreneur for the last 18 years, the 38-year-old grew up just outside Seattle. 

Encouraged by his grandfather and father to take business seriously, by 18 he was coding on the internet and starting ventures with his friends.

A WordPress user since 2006, by 2008 he was building blogs for corporations and discovered the joy of being able to work from anywhere remotely as well as blogging about his own endeavours. 

He then went on to create Highlighter.com – a platform for students and professors to annotate individual passages of text so they could have online discussions around particular words or phrases.

“We raised about $750,000 and ran that company until 2013,” said Nate.

“By 2015 I had really discovered Bitcoin in a serious way.

“My friend in Seattle told me to download Coinbase, and the price was about $270 for a Bitcoin.

“So very early on I fell down the rabbit hole – it’s more of a black hole in the sense that people who fall into the crypto space never escape – I was on it for life.

“As I got into crypto, I started spending a tremendous amount of time on websites like Coindesk, which are like data analysis sites.

“At the time I realised I could build a version of this, combining qualitative and quantitative elements, and have everything interlinked together in WordPress.

“So I stopped the consulting I was doing at the time and started building the site – this was in 2017 and we launched in December.”

Still in Seattle at the time, Nate as co-founder and CEO of Cryptoslate rode the bull market of 2017 as prices for cryptocurrency soared and an increasing demand for information saw his site grow to about 150,000 monthly visitors.

“At this time I was also taking a really strong interest in the global implications of this technology and where previous digital innovations had happened,” said Nate. 

“I could see it happening around the world, especially in places like the UK. 

“So I started researching international conferences which would be interesting to attend, but then I realised there was so much happening in London and Gibraltar.

“So, in February 2018 I flew over to London and then down to Gibraltar for a fintech conference.”

With so many coins in the market, Cryptoslate aims to provide greater depth for its readers
With so many coins in the market, Cryptoslate aims to provide greater depth for its readers

Having presented at the conference, Nate found the international blockchain scene to his liking and decided to relocate to London, moving to Canary Wharf and creating a UK entity to work alongside Cryptoslate’s US business.

He said: “I came here on the endorsement of Level39’s startup visa to join Canary Wharf’s tech community.

“My view was that it contained the best of what was happening in London in an area that’s quite unlike the rest of the city.

“I fell in love with Canary Wharf, with London and with Level39 specifically, when I saw this vision of what life could be like and the opportunities that would present themselves here.

“Since I have been here, all my hopes and dreams have been exceeded in terms of the network of people I have met, so in hindsight, it’s been the best decision I have ever made.

“Having been here a year and a half, I remain passionate about London in general and Canary Wharf as a place to live – I plan on being here a long time.”

In that time Cryptoslate has grown to attract more than a million monthly readers, with Nate aiming to raise $4million to expand its operation.

“We think of the site as a crypto-discoverability engine – we have a combination of news, data and a directory,” said Nate.

“Each day we cover anything from 10 to 15 stories, created by a team of writers mostly in the western European region, but also around the world. We cover issues our audience finds compelling.

“A lot of the time it will be stories about all of the bad events happening, like the hacks and the scams, because we really want to paint an accurate picture of what’s happening with cryptocurrency.

“We don’t think of ourselves as trying to sell ‘hopium’ – the idea people will feed nonsense to each other with the hope of making short-term gains through investment.

“Something that makes us unique compared with other coin sites is that we combine the qualitative and the quantitative to give readers a more accurate picture.

“When you go to a Cryptoslate article about Bitcoin, for example, you’ll not only see the content of the article, you’ll also see a press chart about what Bitcoin actually is, with the opportunity to click through and learn more about it from a qualitative perspective.

“We also do that with our directory of people, products, companies, places and events.

“We also have a strict conflict-of-interest policy, so any time a writer holds an asset they are writing about, they have to check a box and there’s a disclaimer at the bottom of the article. The goal is always to be as transparent and honest as possible.

“I am not editorially involved, personally – I’m a step away – but we don’t discourage our writers from investing in crypto.

“In fact, we think that, if people are using the products, they have a better understanding of how to accurately depict them.”

Whether it's a bull or bear market, Cryptoslate is there to track it
Whether it’s a bull or bear market, Cryptoslate is there to track it

Cryptoslate is actively looking both for strategic investors and to hire writers in London as it grows. It gets about 90% of its revenue from advertising, while 10% comes from its subscription service.

Cryptoslate Edge offers greater analysis, longer stories and is designed to give global investors a better understanding of the market.

“We always try to discourage trying to tell anyone what they should buy, what is a good or bad investment decision, trying to be as objective as possible, but doing it in a more comprehensive way through CryptoSlate Edge,” said Nate.

“The idea behind cryptocurrency is to create an alternative financial system for the world, and that’s absolutely coming true.

“Increasingly the traditional financial system is figuring out ways that it can participate in the crypto economy.

“Just the other day Fidelity announced that it would be offering Bitcoin in pensions, for example.

“Increasingly the crypto industry is going to become part of our daily lives over the next decade.

“People will be using different decentralised protocols and crypto currencies without even realising.

“In the same way that someone may not understand how the internet works, but will use Facebook and Instagram, so it will be the same with crypto technologies over the next decade.

“In five years you could pay by scanning a QR code which connects to your Bitcoin wallet and that’s how you pay for something. These are just some of the things that will be huge for society.”

And Cryptoslate will be there to help its readers and subscribers navigate that future.

Read more: Cody Dock tests its rolling bridge

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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Canary Wharf: How Lenderwize spotted telecoms’ companies’ need for finance

Level39-based firm verifies digital assets allowing money to be lent to the businesses handling them

Lenderwize founder Lawrence Gilioli
Lenderwize founder Lawrence Gilioli

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Lawrence Gilioli’s business, at least at present, is mostly hidden from the minds of the public.

Make a call from the UK to Brazil and the phone rings, someone picks up and the conversation happens.

As far as the user is concerned, they’re paying BT for that call and it’s delivering that connection.

Except, in the world of telecoms, that’s not what goes on.

“BT doesn’t have all the lines in the world, so needs to connect with an intermediary or wholesaler,” said Lawrence.

“They, in turn, don’t have all the lines either, so they need to connect to a terminating operator, which completes that phone call.”

It’s in this middle stage that Lawrence, a seasoned entrepreneur with a background in the telecoms industry, has identified his first market.

“These companies are invoicing each other – the middle man has to pay the terminating operator in Brazil and BT has to pay the middle man.

“However, typically the intermediary has to pay Brazil on seven days, but won’t get paid by BT for 60 days.”

That payment mismatch at worst means the wholesaler can’t do business at all, or limits what they can do, due to cash flow.

To address this problem, Lawrence created Lenderwize.

Based at Canary Wharf’s tech accelerator, Level39 in One Canada Square – but with staff distributed around the world in reflection of the industry it serves – its aim is to provide smart finance solutions for these companies.

“We are essentially talking about digital commodities and services here,” said Lawrence.

“Today’s world is ever more digital – that means traditional banks don’t understand it and they don’t know how to fund it, to validate activity or how to mitigate risk.

“So we’ve invented a fintech platform that uses patent pending technology to capture the digital assets behind phone calls, text messages and data use, for example.

“These things are intangible, but our technology makes them tangible because we are able to capture, validate and certify that these are real assets.

“That means you can lend against something Lenderwize certifies has been delivered.

“We understand this market because me and my partners come from this industry, which is huge – $64billion a year and growing. It includes voice calls, text messages, data use and, now, other e-goods and commodities.

“It is hidden to the general public and it’s even hidden to the financial world, because, being digital, once again, they will shy away from it.

“Typically banks or other investment institutions want to invest in real estate, the motor industry or tangible things like that.

“Consequently, there is this whole digital world that is under-served by banks and under-capitalised, but with a tremendous need because this area is only growing in size and companies need access to funding.”

Digital assets are increasingly important in a connected world
Digital assets are increasingly important in a connected world

Having launched the platform two years ago with the intention of building a business ultimately to sell to a large financial institution once the concept is proven, Lenderwize now has 12 staff split across London, Italy, Australia, Holland and Switzerland.

“We have just passed processing 350million calls in the last year and we expect that to double this year and to triple within two,” said Lawrence. “We expect to surpass a billion calls.

“The way it works is that our clients buy into our system and the data is uploaded automatically onto our platform. 

“That gives us access to their switches anonymously, so we can validate and verify that the information they are giving us on a daily basis is verifiable.

“Right now we’re doing that on a sample basis – looking at calls going to the same destinations from the same number and capturing durations and frequencies.

“We’re checking to see if the numbers are real and, ideally, will ultimately do that on every single asset.

“That’s part of our know-how, but it’s the case that the operators in this market require these services, so clients reach out to us because the need is so great.

“We have a very precise credit vetting procedure and our ability to verify the assets means we’ve only had one default so far, which is exceptional.

“I think the ability to analyse beforehand and then to validate on a daily basis is the key to success. It means that if there is something wrong, we discover it immediately, not at the end of the month.”

In addition to providing credit to these wholesale companies, Lenderwize is also in a position to embed a range of financial services in its operation.

Lawrence said: “We’re looking to exit in three years and we think we’ll be sexy to a bank, a telecoms operator, an insurance company or a big bank.

“That’s because ultimately we are an entire ecosystem that can be used for supply chain financing or supply chain payments, but the direction our fintech platform is going in, which mitigates risk, will be adding on embedded finance, insurance and payment solutions, all in real time.

“As this whole world gets more and more digital, the need to speed things up in real time becomes greater, from risk analysis to the transfer of value.

“Our direction is to continue to develop new technology but we don’t want to re-invent the wheel ourselves, we want to develop partnerships with high quality businesses.

“That’s why we’re so happy to be at Level39, because there’s so much interesting stuff going on here.

“We want to partner with organisations doing specific things to add to our mosaic, creating services for our investors and our clients.”

Lawrence hopes to also offer consumers financial services

As if revolutionising the finances of the telecoms industry on the business end wasn’t enough to be getting on with, Lawrence also has ideas about how Lenderwize might branch out into the consumer market.

“Today we’re B-to-B and tomorrow we want to be B-to-C,” he said.

“At the moment you’re probably paying a flat fee for your phone contract, but statistically you’re throwing away about 25% of that money.

“We want to give people the ability to convert what they’re paying for and not using.

“Three years ago, 25% of people surveyed globally said they would be likely or highly likely to change their operator on the spot if they got a phone call offering them a new deal.

“Three years later and that figure is 66% – there is no loyalty in the mobile world.

“This means that Vodaphone or BT, for example, could lose their entire customer base overnight, potentially.

“Mobile operators need to create loyalty programs, to create stickiness.

“So we will be proposing our finance-meets-telecom solution on people’s phones, where customers can place unused airtime that they have already paid for in an interest-generating wallet.

“We want to tackle two great inefficiencies – airtime and bank savings accounts that offer low or no rates of interest. 

“We want to convert these from cost centres into profit-generating centres – a tool for everyone to use in a proactive way. We’ll be talking more about this later in the year.”

Lawrence, who holds dual Italian and American citizenship said he’d based the business in London because of the efficient infrastructure, easy access to clients and investors and tax breaks for startups.

“Level39 is at the heart of fintech in Europe, it’s also the coolest place to be aesthetically and it’s connected to all the banks,” he said.

Read more: How cryptocurrency exchange Coinjar gives investors options

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- Jon Massey is co-founder and editorial director of Wharf Life and writes about a wide range of subjects in Canary Wharf, Docklands and east London - contact via jon.massey@wharf-life.com
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