If there’s a more discrete British startup than Cheltenham-based data intelligence outfit Ripjar it would be difficult to imagine what it is. The firm’s name has been on UK startup lists since it entered Accenture’s Fintech Innovation Labs in early 2015 and yet until recently running a simple Google search on the company’s homepage turned up little beyond its Twitter profile.
A company has to try hard not to be noticed by Google. Achieving that unusual feat is either a sign of an over-worked webadmin or an enigmatic desire not to be too well known, too soon.
We eventually tracked down Ripjar’s homepage and were intrigued. Far from being the basic website of a new company with other things on its mind, the site was the product of thought and work, polished even. Clearly, we thought, Ripjar is out there but where is it out there?
Startups occasionally operate in stealth mode before official launch, usually because they haven’t hired enough people to engage with the wider world or the investment isn’t yet bullet proof. Rarer are ‘coverts’, firms that have launched but don’t want to talk about themselves until the product has been road tested.
After speaking to Ripjar’s CEO and co-founder Tom Griffin it becomes clear that whatever veil there might have been is in the process of being lifted. Ripjar, confirms Griffin, is ready to come out of its shell and explain itself a bit more to the audience beyond the world of data and maths mavens in which it was conceived.
“It is a complex story,” starts Griffin, cagey about saying too much about its local connections to GCHQ, an organisation he spent some years working for in a role with significant research responsibility. Ripjar has five co-founders, all with GCHQ on their CVs somewhere, something of which the company and Griffin was initially reluctant to mention let alone discuss. A phone and a few hours call later and this has been revised so that Techworld can mention the fact but little beyond that.
It’s not hard to understand why Griffin and his co-founders might feel this way. GCHQ is a huge credibility boost for any UK startup with a cybersecurity theme in its arsenal but it’s also an institution that convention dictates should never be over-cooked. GCHQ is an intelligence agency not a spy-themed cybersecurity accelerator.
Ripjar – the magnificent five
Ripjar began life in October 2013, fuelled by the extensive engineering and software experience of its founders, including Griffin, a mathematics PhD with a talent for sniffing out patterns in unstructured and structured data. Since then the firm has expanded, indeed is still hiring although anyone interested in a job had better be up to scratch in the enigmatic science of data intelligence to have a hope of putting their feet under the table.
“That backdrop of skills I developed in terms of understanding how to get value from large complex data sets is absolutely key to what we’re trying to achieve,” says Griffin of his professional genesis. “From my perspective there was a choice of staying at GCHQ. The only other option was to start my own company.
“We funded it ourselves [by] winning government research contracts answering high-level research questions,” says Griffin by way of explaining the background market for the founders’ expertise. “The second year we started to get paid license customers on to our platform.”
Later came the important few weeks in Accenture’s Fintech Innovation labs, an experience that put their foot in a few doors. “You get fantastic visibility to all of the major banks in the world,” says Griffin of the Accenture period. Ripjar got business from that relationship, including among the tier one institutions that have given them customer validation.
Ripjar - data science
The really intriguing issue is why major banks would buy new-fangled data science from a bunch of British engineers in Cheltenham. What is it they think they're buying and for what purpose?
Deployed onsite or as a cloud service, Ripjar promises to ‘understand’ large amounts of complex data in real time, turning it usable intelligence. Once labelled ‘data mining’ but now more often called ‘data intelligence’, its insights remain the same as they’ve ever been: organisations are awash with data they don’t understand, whose patterns and insights lie useless and undiscovered. Data intelligence is a way of unlocking the hidden usefulness of date.
The application for this concept in cybersecurity is obvious, a world that seems perpetually gripped by its inability to sift normal for anomalous but Ripjar’s platform can also spit out insights with applications in defence intelligence, complex customer interactions, compliance analysis, and reputation management.
The case for data intelligence should be like kicking down an open door but it turns out to be a bit tougher than that. The theory is easy but actually doing without simply churning out insights nobody wants is much harder.
“Organisations are trying to find insights into that data. But that sheer quantity of data takes a lot of time unless you start using computers to get rid of a lot of the haystack,” says Griffin.
I’m very open that there is not a magic green button. A lot of people are flogging it as if it does exist when it doesn’t.”
We ask him to offer a completely down-to-earth example of how the inability of enterprises to understand the data they already gather might be hurting them and Griffin offers the way that organisations interact with customer feedback and complaints.
“They need to act on it fast enough to stay within their compliance targets but they are failing to do that. What are the trends in those complaints? What are the correlations? “
Most likely today’s organisations would remain stuck in reactive mode, slow to spot common themes and issues, often generated by the design of their own internal processes as much as an objective problem. In the finance sector, fathoming this data is becoming critical.
“In the finance sector they are starting to fail on compliance. All of those companies are desperately trying to give a better service.”
Later in 2015, Ripjar agreed to mentor startups entering Cyber London, the UK’s only cybersecurity accelerator program. It’s not obvious that Ripjar needed Cyber London’s help but the accelerator’s first cohort gained from the experience of having Ripjar and previous Techworld profile candidate SQR Systems as examples of what was possible.
In May 2016, Ripjar closed its first external investment from Winton Ventures for an undisclosed sum. This will go to expand the team beyond its current 21, which itself represents a doubling in only 12 months. This will allow it to engage more actively with big banks, the first target sector.
It’s impressive but Griffin is realistic about the competition the global firm is up against, mentioning Silicon Valley neo-giant, Palantir Technologies. For a small company in Cheltenham with one office in London it’s quite a challenge to take on an older super-rich US firm with $2 billion investment behind it.
On the other hand, Palantir must battle credibility issues - cynics see it as more of an investment plan than the next big name in software - and its profile beyond the US remains small. Perhaps, then Ripjar is about authenticity.
Armed with investment, Griffin is confident that Ripjar is at last ready to spread the word and get its name into the mix. He talks of recruiting channel partners and marketing the firm beyond the UK, a brave ambition for a company so small.
“Over the next six months we expect to target sales abroad through strategic partners and see our data intelligence platform become a credible alternative to the more bespoke big data projects typically being led by the like of Palantir and IBM," Griffin explained in an email follow-up.
Griffin and Ripjar have their work cut out but what matters is that the company is at last confident enough to talk about itself in public and cast off the wariness inherited form tis Cheltenham postcode. There will be no going back now – the secret is out there.