Nick Pinks was working on the BBC’s Glastonbury festival coverage when the idea that spawned Covatic came to him.

“Wimbledon and the British Grand Prix were also on that weekend and the viewing figures for the tennis were absolutely trouncing Glastonbury’s,” says Nick, whose job was to explore the future of the industry and identify the threats it would face over the coming years.

“I realised it was because the festival coverage was set around the times of the performances, not around people's lives, whereas Wimbledon viewers were jumping in at the time that suited them. It showed that our content didn’t match our viewers’ lifestyles."

While the Googles and Facebooks of the world had already been identified as the key competitors to traditional broadcasters such as the BBC, Sky and ITV, even their data collection tools couldn’t solve this issue. Search history and social profiles might be able to tell you what a person likes to watch, but they can’t tell you when they like to watch it. Instead, Nick hit upon a much smarter, less invasive way to paint an accurate picture of a person’s day-to-day life.

“The only bit of kit that you religiously keep with you all the time is your phone,” he explains. “You plug it in when you go to bed and unplug it in the morning, so it knows when you wake up, when you get up to have your breakfast, and, in pre-pandemic times, how far you travel to work.

“By using data on that device we can predict what tomorrow's going to be like for them. If you understand what tomorrow's going to be like for a person, you can then provide the best content for them.”

Nick talks about ‘windows of opportunity’ – chunks of time when a user is likely to be open to receiving particular types of content, whether that’s a 60-minute playlist, a 5-minute highlight reel of last night’s game, or a short news article. If you make a journey of the same duration every day, it’s even possible to serve content that exactly matches the time available – and all without any personal data ever leaving the device.

“If you understand when the best time to engage with someone is, you can get the most positive response from them. Moving them from a free user to a subscriber, for example,” Nick explains. “If you know the amount of time they have, then you can identify who is at risk of churning if they are not using it in those times."

In 2015, Nick left the BBC and went to work for Imagine Communications, an American company that helps media companies to make and monetise TV – but he couldn’t stop thinking about this idea he’d had while working for the BBC. After 18 months he left to start Covatic. “I was looking at an industry that wasn't moving fast enough,” he says. “The opportunity for Covatic just seemed huge, and this felt like something that the industry needed."

Initially part of Oxford University Innovations, an initiative run for entrepreneurs, the company was spun out to go it alone in January 2017. It took the 12-person team about three years to get the model to a place where it could be used to pull out insights and data in a way that's usable for advertising and content ecosystems, but Covatic’s SDK can now be found in apps on over a million devices in the UK, including those from KISS, Absolute Radio, and Magic.

“A lot of people have been burnt by academic spin-outs,” says Nick. “Is this just an idea or is it actually real? Just because we spun out of Oxford doesn't automatically mean we have a better broadcast product, but it does mean that our data purity is better and shows the quality of thinking behind it. Everything we've built has been from fundamental research; we haven't taken stuff off a shelf and plugged bits together.”

Covatic doesn’t have as much day-to-day contact with the university any more but its influence and support shouldn’t be downplayed. "We still adhere to the academic excellence of the three founding professors,” says Nick. “They were from the university’s computer science department, whose fellows include the likes of Sir Tim Berners-Lee. We wouldn't be here without them.”

The connection has also helped to attract a “truly phenomenal” engineering team and the company has kept close to the university’s startup ecosystem. In fact, one of Covatic’s investors, OSI, also helped to fund the company behind the AstraZeneca COVID vaccine.

The University of Oxford isn’t the only big name Covatic has got behind it. In 2020, it was the only company outside of North America to be selected for Comcast’s LIFT Labs Accelerator programme, which was based in Philadelphia and run in partnership with Techstars.

Throughout the 12-week course, Nick had to present to Techstars co-founder David Cohen in front of 150 people (“It was awful, but we learned so much"), was interviewed by CNBC’s Jim Cramer (“He crucified me for my choice of tequila on the shelf behind me”), and received feedback from the likes of Comcast CTO Matt Zelesko and the president of advertising, Marcien Jenckes. What’s more, Nick did it all over Zoom thanks to the ongoing situation with COVID-19. “The time zones meant the rest of my family were asleep while I was there at 2am pitching to the management team at Comcast,” he says. “It was certainly a challenge.”

Lack of sleep aside, Nick describes the experience as “exceptional” with access to an incredible range of organisations across the US and the rest of the world now open to him and the company. “Having their senior leadership team involved in our planning, and helping us understand how Comcast sees the world was brilliant,” he says.

Of course, the pandemic hasn’t just affected Nick’s nine-to-five – it has completely changed how we think about a daily routine. “Every consumer now has a different schedule than before,” he says. “Their schedules are also more individual and are always changing. I can’t see us going back to a situation where so many people do the same things at the same time."

These changes in the way people lived their lives and consumed content opened up a huge opportunity for Nick to pursue opportunities in other sectors and verticals, including sport – and it’s these that are now showing the most traction and momentum. “I was very wedded to the broadcast space when we first started and that was probably a mistake,” he admits. “They were much slower to pick up in this field than I thought they would be.”

From Nick’s point of view, the challenges for these industries are exactly the same as those a broadcaster faces – and with many sports teams and brands starting to focus on growing their direct-to-consumer propositions, Covatic can really help them get the most out of their content.

“I think it's fair to say that in the next few years major broadcast deals will change,” he says. "There's going to be a transition to first-party platforms, and part of the reason for that is going to be the data. The Premier League and other big properties will still be wanted by the broadcasters, but you are already seeing a move to direct-to-consumer for other sports with smaller but very engaged fanbases."

So what does the immediate future hold for Covatic? For starters, Nick plans to expand the team and raise some more funds to capitalise on the momentum it has managed to build over the past six months. That should only increase when the company’s new self-serve product launches later in Q1, which will allow any developer to add a select few of Covatic’s features to an app for a lower price than the full package.

And it’s not just about media and content either. Covatic’s tools are also being used by a sustainability company to power an app that works out a person’s carbon footprint based on their movements and habits. At the end of the week, it'll tell them how much to pay if they want to offset all the carbon they’ve used, while automatically telling all their social media followers that they’re carbon neutral.

“It's just another interesting take on what we're doing,” says Nick. “We can help with any app that’s competing for somebody’s attention, whether it’s a game, music, video, or reading. Our long-term vision is to become the world leader in personalisation.”

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When Donny White and Randall Newman founded Satisfi Labs in summer 2016, its first signings were a trio of genuine New York icons: the Mets baseball team, the Macy's chain of department stores, and the US Open Tennis Championships.

Just over four years later and Satisfi Labs’ roster has ballooned to 200 high-profile clients, with half of them sports brands and the rest made up of theatres, theme parks, airports and other largely tourism- and entertainment-related outlets. But no matter the subject, the idea and tech underpinning it all is always the same.

The original aim was to create an “Amazon experience” for stadiums and live events by using conversational AI to make them searchable and shoppable – a quest inspired by the availability of bacon on a stick at Citi Field, the home of the Mets. With the help of Satisfi Labs’ tech, teams would also be able to understand the demand curves for such a delicacy and inform fans about things they otherwise might miss.

While Satisfi Labs’ tools were previously focused on answering questions around live events that Google wasn’t necessarily best-equipped to help with – places to park, how to find a particular seating area, or what vegetarian alternatives to a stick of bacon were available - the Covid outbreak led to the realisation that, while this focus on the physical represented the biggest data gap, it was unnecessarily limiting.

When the pandemic hit and every single one of Satisfi Labs’ clients had its business put on hold, usage of the company’s tools dropped initially but never hit zero – and it soon saw a dramatic rise, partly due to the free COVID-19 Assistant the company released at the end of March. Even when people were stuck at home they still had questions about when fans would be allowed to return to stadiums, how ticketing would work, and what safety measures would be in place.

“Our volume went up by five times because people had a lack of places they could go to get good information and ours comes from the source,” says Donny. “The system has learned five million new phrases as a result of Covid and 50% of this year's questions were new or applied in a different way.” All of sudden, face masks weren’t just something found on NFL players’ helmets.

The result is a product that now has more wide-ranging use and appeal than before the pandemic, which allows the company to serve a broader audience than just those attending particular locations or events. The team realised that the questions that fans were asking would change now that they were removed from the stadiums.

“We immediately shifted resources to building at home experiences,” says Donny. “But now we were dealing with questions like ‘How do we stream practice?’, ‘Where do I watch the game?’ and ‘Who is starting?’ rather than ‘Where is the parking?’. We had to supplement our physical search understanding with things like scores, stats, standings and schedules.” In August 2020, 15 MLB teams, including the Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Whitesox, were the first clients to go live with the new capabilities via Google Assistant.

Of course, there have been sacrifices too. Every member of staff has taken a temporary pay cut, off-shore resources for things like quality control have been moved in-house, and the lease on the eye-catching Times Square office is unlikely to be extended when it comes up for renewal. But the company never had to make any reductions in key resources and has been able to accelerate its product development.

That’s been made possible by a recent injection of cash from Bigfoot Capital – a financial services firm that Donny first encountered at an event called Foundercon back in June 2018. Organised by seed accelerator Techstars, whose program Satisfi Labs has previously taken part in, it was here that Donny also first met Google.

After a few initial follow-ups with the search giant things went quiet, but around nine months later Donny was invited to fly out to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View, California. “At first I thought they were suing me,” he says with a laugh, “but they were actually interested in partnering with us.”

A two-hour grilling kicked off a multi-month due diligence process that Donny describes as “the most intense you can imagine,” with everything from the customers and the tech, to the employees and other investors under close scrutiny. “When it was finally approved I felt like I'd been through the gauntlet, but they're the most enjoyable to work with,” he says. “There are certain career moments that nobody can ever take away from you – and that's one of them.”

Donny meets regularly with a technical contact from Google who offers advice, ideas and assistance, but it’s just one of many important relationships that need to be juggled carefully. As well as Google Assistant and Google Pay, Satsifi Labs’ tools work with Apple’s Business Chat, plus Apple Pay and Amazon Pay are both supported. Of course, it benefits the customers to be available through as many digital access points as possible, but what’s it like to deal with three of tech’s biggest rivals? “It's a constant balancing act,” says Donny. “But you just have to be really good at what you do and all of them will benefit from that.”

Earlier this year, being really good at what it does led to Satisfi Labs signing up its first UK client. A few weeks after the Kansas City Chiefs had lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in February, Donny woke up to an email from Tottenham Hotspur. Impressed by what Satisfi Labs had done around the Super Bowl, the Premier League club had reached out via the company’s website to see how the two could work together. So how does a British sports client differ to those back home in the US?

“It's more different than I thought it would be,” admits Donny. “We asked them to tell us what the most important things about their experience are so we could build a UK database.” As well as less focus on parking and more on nearby bars, Tottenham fans have also shown more interest in retail, while stadium tours and the Dare Skywalk, which involves stepping out onto a glass walkway nearly 50 metres above the pitch, have also been popular.

The tool went live in time for the first game with fans back in the stands, a derby win over Arsenal at the start of December, but it had been a long time coming. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, the whole process between Spurs and Satisfi Labs was conducted virtually over email and Zoom calls, but Donny sees more pros than cons with this way of working.

“It has enabled quicker relationship-building in some circumstances because there are certain walls that have dropped,” he explains. Before the pandemic, Donny would’ve felt the need to jump on a plane and fly to London for the Tottenham deal, but jumping on a video call and being able to get a glimpse into the personal lives of people you’ve never met takes the pressure off a little bit. “For me, I actually think this is better,” he admits, before revealing that he’s also been able to pursue something in Japan this year as a result.

A key focus for Donny in 2021 is a new feature called Knowtifi (his more Brooklyn-inspired suggestion of LemmeKnow was vetoed by the marketing department). Inspired by the uncertainty that surrounded professional sports fixtures and the back-in-stock alerts that some retail websites allow potential customers to set up, Knowtifi applies the same concept to questions. If a brand can’t answer immediately, users can choose to be informed when it can, rather than having to keep asking the same questions every day for the next two, six or even 12 months.

“I always believed that having a hyper-indexed content system that understood very detailed customer intents would lead to something,” says Donny. “I thought commerce was going to be the bigger thing – but now I think Knowtifi is ten times what that could be. The uncertainty is an opportunity.”

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Updated: Dec 16, 2020

Back in January 2019, Slate co-founders Michael Horton and Will Brooke met with make-up giant Shiseido to discuss Fontmoji – a consumer-facing mobile app they’d built with Yury Shubin to turn written text into custom stickers. But it was an exploratory conversation with the cosmetics company that provided the closest thing to a eureka moment for Michael and co.

“They saw our Fontmoji app and expressed an interest in an app for themselves to create content on their own social media,” he says. “We built that for them and they used it at Paris Fashion Week. That was the very first version of what became Slate.”

Today, Slate’s platform is used by some of the biggest sports brands in the world, including the Green Bay Packers in the NFL, the Golden State Warriors in the NBA, and Premier League ever-presents Tottenham Hotspur, to create on-brand content in real time for all the major social media platforms.

It might seem like quite a leap to go from fonts and foundation to NFL, but Slate and the USA’s most popular spectator sport go way back. Slate’s fourth co-founder Eric Stark met Michael while both were working in the social team for the San Francisco 49ers, plus Eric had previously held the role of director of international marketing for the NFL.

The pair knew all too well what it was like to chase players around the field post-match, competing with the world’s press for a slice of the action, often with tougher deadlines but fewer tools. They built Slate off the back of their own experience of creating content on-the-fly and with the same generic fonts, graphics and gifs as their competitors.

Earlier this year, the company strengthened its links to the NFL when it secured funding from TitletownTech and WISE Ventures, which are connected to the owners of the Packers and Minnesota Vikings respectively. While Slate had already been working with both teams before they even spoke to either investor, the team doesn’t deny it gave them a leg-up in terms of the fundraising process, accelerating the due diligence process and allowing them to skip a couple of steps ahead in terms of gaining their trust.

“Even though we had connections to teams in the league the most that gets you is a call,” says Eric. “It's pretty easy to convince the social media managers of the value of the product because we know how hard their job is and the tool very much speaks to making their lives easier and making them work more efficiently. But they're not necessarily the budget holders. The key is helping them convince the organisation that it's worth investing in.”

Having officially launched just before the NFL training camps began in July 2019, the company had seven of the league’s franchises onboard by the time the season kicked off in September and word of this new platform spread quickly from team to team. “We started getting teams either coming to us, or those we'd previously reached out to unsuccessfully, suddenly responding,” says Michael. “We started hearing a lot of: ‘I was just at a game against this other team and they were telling us about your product and how much they love it,’ and getting referrals that way. That was one of the things that made me think it was definitely going to work. It was a big moment.”

By the time Slate customers Kansas City Chiefs lifted the Vince Lombardi Trophy at Super Bowl LIV in February of this year, Slate had worked with the league itself and over half of its 32 teams.

A few short weeks later the Covid pandemic’s inexorable march across the globe changed everything and nothing for the company. With 6,000 miles between Eric in Oregon, Michael and Will in New York, and Yury in Bulgaria, distributed working has always been the norm for Slate. In fact, all four co-founders have never physically been in the same room together. Will is the only one to have met Yury in person and while Michael and Eric worked together, Eric and Will have only met once.

“We want to take advantage of globalisation and the fact that there's amazing talent everywhere,” says Will. “We had such a great time working together on Fontmoji without needing to all be in the same place to collaborate, it just reaffirmed a lot of assumptions that we already had – you don't necessarily need to all be in the same location to build a great team. We also have ambitions to be a global company, so it's great to be able to say we have team members in Eastern Europe or on the West Coast.”

But as professional sports leagues everywhere began to shut down, Slate’s key market looked as if it could disappear overnight. For a company that was barely six months old, that could easily have spelled disaster, with clients cutting budgets, staff and any costs they could. “They didn't know when they were going to play again or if the social media managers would even be allowed at the games. There was just a lot of uncertainty on their side,” explains Michael.

And they weren’t the only ones. After a lot of fraught conversations concerning the best plan of action and some sooner-than-planned expansion into the worlds of media and brands, the team was able to figure out the part Slate still had to play in sports within the context of the pandemic. “There were a lot of ways that we found we could still help teams during the pandemic but in the early part we definitely had to stop and rethink how we fit into this new environment that we were all living in,” says Michael.

With a lot of clients having to move all of their sponsors to social and digital channels, Slate helped them to execute sponsor activations that might have otherwise been lost through the lack of on-field action.

When sports fixtures did return they were almost unrecognisable. As well as the empty stands, teams could only have a limited number of people within their bubbles, so Slate became a valuable tool for reduced social teams with fewer resources, allowing them to continue creating high-quality content despite the difficult circumstances.

“Real-time social media is only getting more challenging,” says Will. “We've been able to speak with a lot of the sports and athlete partnership teams at Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, and we’ve tried to position ourselves as something they'd want to recommend to the teams and athletes that they work with every day. If we can get a feel for where the platforms are going we can make sure we're building the right tools before anyone else.”

So what does 2021 hold for Slate? A new round of fundraising is one option, although not confirmed just yet, but a big focus will be on improving the product. “We’ve got this ever-evolving Trello board with 100s of cards for new features, bug fixes and improvements based on client feedback. There’s also a Slack channel full of product feedback that the sales team are getting from customers” says Will.

The other priorities will be building out the eight-person team with new hires, and expanding into as many regions and industries as possible. “We're getting some traction in the Premier League. Tottenham have been killing it, they have been one of the first to add animated filters. We’re also just starting to speak with some rugby teams and leagues, and I want to work with cricket,” reveals Will. “It seems like a massive market, in a different part of the world to what we're familiar with.”

Whatever the company decides to do next, 2020 has shown just how valuable their industry insight is. “We really don't have a true competitor in the market yet,” says Eric. “That's a great sign that we're really onto something.”

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