Automation has been a major theme within the technology sector in recent months, as attention turns to how it will affect white-collar professionals such as lawyers.

However, some are already way ahead of the curve. One such company is RAVN, a startup based in London that works primarily with the legal sector and corporate lawyers. Clients include Berwin Leighton Paisner, Sky and Bloomberg.

Cofounder Jan Van Hoecke © RAVN
Cofounder Jan Van Hoecke © RAVN

"The legwork of the legal industry is reading documents," cofounder Jan Van Hoecke tells Techworld. "This is about automating the reading process."

Its AI software reads, interprets and extracts information from documents, converting unstructured data into structured output more quickly and accurately than any human, the company claims.

RAVN's four founders (Van Hoecke, Peter Wallqvist, Sjoerd Smeets and Simon Pecovnik) met while working for another UK tech firm, Autonomy.

"The company doesn't bear a very great name anymore because of it appearing in the press in quite a bad way," Van Hoecke admits, referring to HP's botched £7 billion acquisition of Autonomy in 2011.

"It was quite innovative when it launched, its first few years and its products - the initial vision was really good," Van Hoecke says, although by the end "it was not innovating, and we figured we could do it better ourselves."

The founding four

For the first year and a half the founders were based out of Peter and Simon's flat. "I was still the earliest one in the office even though they just had to crawl out of bed," laughs Van Hoecke.

RAVN has always been entirely self-funded, and managed to secure success by picking up some impressive initial clients like Bloomberg.

"People always say if you keep control, you will never regret it," Van Hoecke says. "But you might regret taking investors on board. It's tempting because you know with money you can do a lot of things. But if so many people say this, there might be some truth to it, right?" 

Originally the founders sold consultancy services, but they soon shifted to selling products. RAVN now employs 46 people at its London HQ, plus one office in Amsterdam and another in New York.

The products

The main focus was on developing new products for processing unstructured data, which make up the vast majority of most organisations' data. RAVN worked to improve the ability of software to analyse documents with its product RAVN ACE (Applied Cognitive Engine).

The company provides a 'Knowledge Graph', which links together information within organisations: by document, team, project and so on.

"We trademarked it and Google has in the meantime breached our trademark, so we should probably sue them but on the other hand that's probably not going to happen," Van Hoecke laughs.

RAVN also offers enterprise search products, which help to make it easier for people to find specific information within their company.

"Documents are not the final entity of information," he explains. "If you are looking for something – say how to switch on the screensaver of your Mac – you don't want to go through a 20 page manual. You want to get an answer."

"We have a lot of competitors on the search market, but market is fragmented," he adds. "Search engine companies stagnated, they were bought off by organisations like IBM and Microsoft and there was very little innovation. There still is, we're not challenged very often."

AI for lawyers

The fact RAVN has become a company that focuses on 'AI for lawyers' was not a deliberate choice, according to Van Hoecke.

"We just got into it quite early, and we got quite good at it," he says. "We got a good reputation as well."

The reason RAVN has been so successful within the legal sector is not so much down to the type of documents involved, but the fact that the people reading them are expensive, and there is a big pressure on lawyers to become cheaper. "They have one of the most old-fashioned ways of working in terms of the automating of their processes," Van Hoecke says.

Another factor is the exponential growth of documents within legal firms. "There are more contracts, they are becoming larger, so that means your legal costs will go up exponentially, which is obviously not feasible," he adds.

Van Hoecke says he does not believe that RAVN's technology is replacing jobs.

"It's not replacing lawyers, it's enhancing them," he says. "I don't pitch this as an AI lawyer doing things on their own. It's more a calculator. If you do those computations manually that takes so much time. Likewise you don’t want to read 1,000 contracts. You want to get facts out of it and make your analysis – that's what you are good at, that's where your know-how comes in."

Brexit fears

Looking ahead to the rest of 2017, RAVN hopes to embed its reputation as an AI company and broaden its reach beyond legal into sectors like telecoms, finance and insurance.

However, like many tech firms, the founders have Brexit-related fears regarding immigration.

"I think we employ 16 nationalities. That's not by design. It's by circumstance. We have Scandinavian clients, French and Spanish and for that we need native speakers in those languages. I don't know if we have to worry about our staff leaving. I hope not," Van Hoecke says.

However, he remains upbeat about London's prospects as a tech hub.

"People sometimes ask me 'why did you start it in London?' But I think the question should be turned around," he says. "It's because of London that we started. It still is one of the best places in Europe to start a tech company and didn't have that overhyped cycle that the Valley has, or the extremely high wages the Valley has. There is a lot of talent and there are a lot of clients. The only negative part is that office space is quite expensive."

RAVN won 'Best Enterprise Startup 2016' at Techworld's 'techies' awards last year. ENTER HERE for this year's awards by 30 January 2017.