From politics to business to sports, Areto Labs is using machine learning to tackle online abuse in social media and create safer digital communities for everyone. How did the female-founded Alberta tech startup get started and how is it making an impact on a global stage?
We asked Lana about the Areto Labs journey and how it’s working to solve a big problem.
Investment Associate, Accelerate Fund
|What sparked you to create Areto Labs?|
CEO and Co-founder
|Five years ago, I was working at a bank in their tech group exploring research into AI and machine learning and presenting our research findings at academic conferences.|
At that time, I had co-founded a nonprofit organization with my current co-founder at Areto Labs, Kasey Machin, that was dedicated to encouraging more women to run for political office. We heard from a lot of women concerned about entering public office and the horror stories of online abuse and toxicity on social media platforms like Twitter.
I presented a paper at an AI conference on behalf of ATB’s machine learning team, and while I was there, I stumbled upon a poster that described using natural language processing to detect toxic sentiment on social media. I thought, if we can detect toxic sentiment, can we counteract what’s being said and solve the problem?
That was really the spark that kicked off tech experiments that received really positive and interesting feedback. It ultimately proved to be a huge market opportunity, so we took the leap and founded Areto Labs.
|How did you know you were really onto something?|
|We first focused our technology in politics but we realized that they’re not an early adopter market or a typical market. We then explored public vs. private digital communities like digital workplaces such as Slack. But experiments revealed it was a pretty crowded space with a lot of competition and it just wasn’t a fit for us as our first market entry strategy.|
We then looked again at social media and started to really understand the landscape of who’s participating there. We know many businesses and organizations use social communities as part of their marketing and brand strategies. We dug into which organizations have public-facing talent that is really critical for growth of their brand. That led us to focus on sports.
After hundreds of discovery calls, we found momentum with athletes. Finding those first customers in that market who were excited to sign on – those were the moments that really felt like we were onto something.
|You’re now three years into building Areto Labs. Where is the company at today?|
|We now have 15 customers in 5 countries which include Canada, the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand. We’re moving from pre-seed to seed stage status and converting more pilots to recurring revenue contracts.|
|What have been some pivotal growth moments so far?|
|One exciting growth example is working with the New Jersey Devils and entering into the space of the NHL. We met their marketing team at a conference, and they were excited about our product and ready to buy it, and today the product is working really well for them. Being able to detect and get rid of negative spam comments for them automatically has been very gratifying!|
What started as a tech demo is now a fully-fledged product built on the innovative ideas of our team and made stronger by feedback from customers.
Seeing what resonates with our users, where they spend the most time is always exciting. Our responder feature uses some of the latest innovations in generative AI, which is a game-changer. It’s something that our customers are really excited about because it points to the future possibilities of fully automating digital community management, where we think we’ll see humans and machines working alongside each other to prevent abuse and harassment from happening in the first place. That’s the ultimate goal and the mission we’re on as a company over the long term.
|What makes the problem of online abuse hard to solve?|
|It’s a big, complex problem, but the solutions are known. It’s just a matter of implementation and scaling. We’ve built our technology based on natural language processing but we’ve also paired it with our expertise in communications, media and marketing. Our multidisciplinary approach to solving the problem is our really important differentiator.|
While the problem is simple to understand from a cultural point of view, building effective natural language processing models is tricky. The biggest challenge is to accurately reflect context in language. For our micro-aggression detection model, we’re solving this by layering in-house built natural language models on top of each other. Even with all the generative AI work we’re seeing now, it still remains a fun, open problem to solve.
|You’re a women founder and with other women co-founders leading the team, how has that shaped your founder experience or growth so far?|
|There are a lot of people who are really excited to see a startup founded by three women and are excited to invest and support us in what we’re doing. It’s been awesome. Canada is a great place to be a woman starting a startup compared to some of the other markets that we’ve explored.|
There have been challenges too, though. We still live in a world where last year women-founded startups raised only 1.9% of all VC funding. And we have experienced direct and overt sexism during our sales activities which can be disheartening, realizing that these types of things still happen so blatantly in male-dominated industries like sports and tech. On the flip side, some funds have popped up to specifically support women founders, and many teams and organizations are excited to work with us because we’re different and offer an important, and missing, perspective on the problem we’re solving for them.
While there are still barriers to entry and challenges, there has been a lot of progress made and it’s really benefited us. Had we started this company 10 years ago, I imagine it would be different. But I believe we’ll keep making progress.
|Areto Labs recently made the trip to a trade mission to the UK. What was that like?|
|We’ve been evaluating the UK market and there have been a couple of trade mission opportunities that we’ve taken advantage of. One of them was the Women in Tech trade mission to London, UK a few weeks ago. And we are back again in April for another one for Canadian tech companies.|
There’s a particular cultural interest in our solution in the UK that’s a little bit different from North America. Online spaces are being considered in a deliberate way there, including more conversations around regulation. We’re looking at how we could officially enter the UK market, what we might do differently.
We’re actively cultivating global markets including Canada, the United States, the UK, the EU, Australia and New Zealand.
|Any advice for other Alberta tech entrepreneurs considering Accelerate Fund for funding?|
|Go for it! Accelerate Fund has been a fantastic partner and investor for us, providing a huge amount of valuable support and guidance. My reference for the team would be glowing.|
I echo the advice we heard in our fundraising journey: choose your investors carefully, you’re entering into a long-term relationship.
Really focus energy on the relationships you build with people and how you communicate. I apply this to my co-founders and how we work together, but also to our investors, supporters, and partners.
|Where to next for Areto Labs?|
|Right now, we’re in a heads-down mode driving toward a revenue milestone to enter our next phase of growth. We’re also thinking about how to expand our go-to-market motions including product lead growth strategies.|
We’re continuing to build our data engineering center of excellence, mainly with team members based in Edmonton’s thriving AI scene, which is critical to get right. We’re also prioritizing building out product features, starting by testing features manually and then building out automation.
Looking ahead 10 years, I imagine Areto Labs equipping every community on the internet with a digital agent that works alongside or enhances the community of human beings to create a more positive, inclusive environment and culture.