Online grooming and radicalisation are major problems for our societies. Successfully prosecuting sexual assault cases is particularly challenging: with the rise of live streaming and mobile phone use, law enforcement agencies are faced with an almost infinite amount of social media data to trawl through in order to build a strong case. Traditional ways of monitoring using human moderators or investigators to go through social media posts, websites and messaging manually, are laborious, time-consuming and error-prone.
So, after 10 years of collaboration at the university, Anna and her supervisor, Dr Lee Gillam, decided to pool their knowledge, passion and mission to create Securium, with Nigel as their executive advisor. The team wasin place. A fter 6 months of market validation funded through Innovation to Commercialisation of University Research (ICURe), a joint initiative between Innovate UK and SETsquared, ( a programme which had been set up by Surrey University, together with Bath, Bristol, Cardiff, Exeter, and Southampton and Surrey to encourage researchers to “get out of the lab”), Securium spun out from the University of Surrey. The idea was to create a suite of products using the technology that would appeal to commercial organisations as well as the public sector.
Fast forward a few years, Securium has multiple contracts with UK Law Enforcement Agencies and is expanding to the Canadian and US markets with their private sector offerings.
Securium has developed two core products, Securium-Safeguard and Securium-Discover. Securium-Safeguard uses AI tools to search through chat rooms or gaming platforms to identify, in real-time, types of language that are indicative of behaviour that can lead to online grooming, exploitation and sexual abuse. The software can be useful not just to law enforcement agencies seeking to stamp out predators, or digital forensic companies undertaking crime investigations. But it also offers hugely valuable tools for schools that want to protect children, and social platforms that want to protect their users – and their reputations.
Securium-Discover tracks online dissemination of specific content, such as offensive or dangerous material – for instance, terrorist propaganda where there is a national security angle, or hate speech that leads to an increase in the number of hate crimes. But there are also commercial applications. Luxury brands, for instance, can use the software to track down counterfeiters seeking to pass themselves off as legitimate resellers of their branded merchandise. “The Shazam of text finding,” she calls it.
Getting to this point has not been easy. For one thing, she is a woman in a field – computer science and cyber security – which is notoriously male-dominated. She is also dyslexic.
The story of how Vartapetience got involved in this field is fascinating in itself. Whip-smart, neither she nor her parents could understand why school was such a struggle. “I would either get 100% or zero,” she says. Although she was good at maths, even that could be problematic, as she could not easily make out the different mathematical symbols. It was only when she was studying for her masters that she got a diagnosis. Once she was told she was dyslexic, things started to fall into place.
She had always found pure maths boring – “I needed to have a purpose, something more stimulating,” she says – but she eventually found her niche: “I always found computers fascinating. With computer science, I can do anything.” She was particularly drawn to using computers for animation and gaming. Like many dyslexic people, she is good at seeing patterns in visual data. However, she also had an impulse to do something worthwhile, that would contribute something positive to society. But the obvious routes into caring professions were closed to her. “I always knew I wanted to do good, but I was not cut out to be a nurse or caregiver.”
Anna is disarmingly frank about the obstacles she has faced. Many of the bodies she initially approached were questioning her position both as a woman in tech and as a female CEO.
It was here that support from accelerators and grants proved particularly helpful. Securium received two UK Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA ) contracts and one from InnovateUK which assisted further in developing the solutions and giving the founders the runway they needed to turn their ideas into powerful products. But that was nothing compared with the boost she and the business got when she was selected for a 2022 Innovate UK Women in Innovation award. As one of 38 women selected as part of a programme set up in order to encourage women innovators, the award entitled her to £50,000 in government grants to scale up the business, together with a bespoke package of support including, tailored business coaching, mentoring and a wide range of networking and training opportunities.
The mentoring offered by Innovate UK EDGE proved invaluable. Vartapetiance describes herself as “a recovering academic.” As she explains: “For someone like me, becoming an entrepreneur meant leaving everything I was good at and/or comfortable with, and walking into a new unknown territory”. Getting to grips with term sheets, job specs, accounts, and providing share options to key employees, all this was new. Her current mentor, she says, “is absolutely brilliant.”
Vartapetiance is clearly passionate about what she is trying to achieve with Securium. She is a director of the Online Safety Tech Industry Association (OSTIA) which is promoting technological solutions to foster online safety and combat abuse, and a frequent contributor to international initiatives to encourage the adoption of sophisticated tools such as the ones Securium has developed as a way of making the internet safer, particularly for children, but also others, communities, businesses and individuals.
She makes no apologies for the fact that Securium is a “Tech for good,” company. That is what gets her out of bed each morning. But she insists that does not mean Securium is not 100% commercial in its focus. “We are not a social enterprise.” The priority has been on the public sector – as it can have a bigger social impact faster -with all that entails in terms of resourcing, procurement and accountability. But there is significant potential, too, from the commercial sector in terms of brand and reputation protection.