Start-up of the week: Yedup

21 Nov 2016

From left: Yedup founders Dr Martin Spollen and Paul McWilliams. Image: Yedup

Our start-up of the week is Yedup, which uses groundbreaking social media analytics to gain real-time information on market conditions and what customers are thinking.

“Yedup develops the fundamental mathematics needed to power next-generation artificial intelligence (AI) – building machines with human-like capability to learn continually from their environment in real time,” explained Dr Martin Spollen, co-founder and CEO of Yedup.

“These are some of the hardest problems in artificial intelligence because they demand exceptional levels of processing speed and accuracy.

‘Social media is a good example of a rapidly evolving environment. New words, phrases and hashtags enter the global conversation every day – just think how ‘Brexit’ was an unknown word not that long ago’

The company, founded by mathematicians Spollen and Paul McWilliams, was named Company of the Year at the recent Propel Programme Awards and Best New Start company at the InterTrade Ireland Seedcorn Awards.

“We recently released SodaBread, our premier product for hedge funds, high-frequency traders and algorithmic trading.

“SodaBread extracts current investor and consumer views and opinions about financial instruments, companies, industries and markets, and produces streaming signals that may be used to identify advantageous trading opportunities.”

The market

According to Spollen, in the future, continual learning machines will power a vast array of smart devices and applications, which will make the impossible possible.

“Yedup’s technology has widespread applications in a future where the smartest devices will figure problems out for themselves, build on the knowledge gained and perform better the next time.

“Continual learning is particularly important when the environment is changing rapidly. In these situations, traditional ‘train once’ AI loses accuracy as time passes. So, the ability to learn constantly ‘on the fly’ is a big step forward in the AI field.

“In the first application of the Yedup technology, we are addressing an age-old problem for investors – how to access market-sensitive information before other investors, in order to profit by ‘trading ahead of the market’.

“Our system processes global social media firehose data streams to detect market-sensitive news, events and changing public opinions before the stories break on other media. Our target market is high-speed quantitative traders, who use the results to identify immediate opportunities to trade profitably in the global equities market.

“We are also exploring other domain applications, such as a new approach to detect constantly evolving cyber threats.”

The founders

Spollen’s background is in finance and analytics, including with one of the ‘Big 4’ accounting practices.

“I then set up my own firm, which was successful and ended up being acquired by a publicly listed company. More recently, I have acted as chief investment officer for an investment firm, championing data-driven decisions.”

Spollen holds a PhD in mathematics and has a strong professional interest in the fundamentals of AI and machine learning.

“My co-founder, Paul McWilliams, is Yedup CTO. He is a pioneer in the field of adaptive machine intelligence for demanding real-time applications. He is a chartered engineer and holds a first-class Master’s degree in mathematics and statistics. At Yedup, Paul is responsible for AI deep-learning algorithm innovation, development and statistical testing.”

The technology

Yedup uses advanced mathematics to detect unusual patterns on social media – looking at what is said, by whom, in what time period and from what location.

“Social media is a good example of a rapidly evolving environment. New words, phrases and hashtags enter the global conversation every day – just think how ‘Brexit’ was an unknown word not that long ago.

“By learning constantly, our machines understand better what authors really mean in any contemporary context – which gives us the real edge when it comes to accuracy.

“For example, there was a fire recently on a plane at Chicago O’Hare Airport. The airline stock took a hit once the news hit the main media channels, but our analysis picked the news up faster from passengers’ social media posts – so we were able to alert our hedge fund clients before the stock price subsequently declined.

“We also correctly predicted that the news would affect the aeroplane manufacturer’s stock price.”

Spollen said Yedup aims to be a major provider of real-time market foresight to global financial institutions by 2020, complementing services from exchange data vendors like Bloomberg and Thomson Reuters.

“Beyond that, we aim to licence our core technology for an array of other applications.”

Focus on growth

Yedup recently completed the Invest Northern Ireland Propel Programme, which Spollen says has been fundamental in helping the company to refine its offering and prepare the business for export markets.

“We were thrilled to be named Propel Company of the Year at the end of the programme, which was a great endorsement of our progress to date. Following this, we were also named NI Regional Winner at the 2016 InterTradeIreland Seedcorn Awards.

“Operationally, we’ve built our own low-latency system 100pc from scratch and it’s now fully operational. Key relationships are in place and our first clients are on board. We are getting great support from Twitter particularly, and from traders in London and Chicago.

“Our focus now is on securing investment for the growth phase. We are speaking to a number of VCs on both sides of the Atlantic and hope to complete our first round early in 2017.”

Turning ideas into reality

Spollen points out that great ideas are necessary for success, but they are rarely sufficient on their own.

“Once we had proven our approach worked, the challenge was to create a product the market could actually connect to and use, day in day out. Fortunately, we found the right skills and got on with the job of building the commercially scalable system we have today.

He points out that the start-up scene, both north and south, has taken off massively in the last few years.

“There’s a fantastic range of supports available now to help people take the plunge and stick with it. In the old days, this was all about government grants – but the bigger impact now is from the ecosystem of like-minded people and mentors, which supports young entrepreneurs to navigate the challenges to success (or fail quickly and try again), especially the Invest NI Propel Programme and to Xcell Partners, who helped us to get going.”

His advice to fellow entrepreneurs is to persevere. “Keep at it. It can sometimes seem like the weight of the world is on your shoulders – but it is definitely worth it in the end.

“Many big companies now realise that the greatest pool of innovation is in the start-up community, so if it doesn’t work out, the experience will still count for a lot on your CV. And if it does work, the rewards can be very big indeed.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years