Featurespace's CEO Martina King on its mission, growth and the impact of AI
We have great brains and brains don't work in a 9-5 system' she tells us
Featurespace’s mission is clear.
It was set by the late Professor Bill Fitzgerald, of the University of Cambridge, who formed the company with his PhD student, Dave Excell.
“When Prof Bill was dying he asked us to help make the company as commercially successful as he was academically. That’s an incredible mission,” says CEO Martina King.
“He was one of the top five experts in machine learning in the world. When you’ve got that academic excellence, nothing short of a truly global British technology company that’s battling fraud attacks across the world is going to be enough.
“That is a huge motivator for me.”
Featurespace’s ARIC platform employs adaptive behavioural analytics to help companies detect fraud and manage risk.
It has taken the gaming industry by storm and is being widely adopted across the finance and insurance industries.
Such is Featurespace’s growth that Martina says the firm is likely to need another 100 recruits this year – such as data scientists, implementation engineers and test engineers.
“We are a machine learning company but it’s still all about people,” says Martina. “It’s about inspiring ourselves to believe we can do something groundbreaking.
“We’ve worked really hard to listen to customers and understand the type of fraud product that they want and we’ve built it for them.
“A lot of people working in technology have an idea of what it should do and build a product before they know if there’s a market for it. We’ve done it the other way around.”
Featurespace span out of the Department of Engineering in 2008 when Betfair, the world’s largest betting exchange, asked it to find a new method of stopping the growing threat of fraudsters.
The solution uses an understanding of how to extract the signal, or meaning, from the ‘noise’ of data – technology developed by Prof Fitzgerald in his role as head of applied statistics and signal processing.
Monitoring customer data in real-time, it spots anomalies and block fraud attacks as they happen. Unlike traditional products, it is adept at avoiding ‘false positives’ – in other words, it is much better at understanding when a customer is genuine and avoids blocking their activity.
“There were established incumbents occupying the technology solution territory and it was up to us to encourage people to look at the problem for a different perspective,” recalls Martina.
“Typically, what people would do is write rules against what known fraud looked like and apply that to a dataset. What we were preaching was the opposite.
“If you monitor every individual event that goes through your system that granular analysis enables you to have far greater accuracy in your predictions.
“It’s a combination of computer processing power and modelling competence. We can take a model based on feature selection in data and all we have to store is statistical state, not the whole dataset.
“That enables you to have something much more light and nimble.”
Since replacing its rules-based system in 2008 with Featurespace’s ARIC platform, Betfair has seen a 77 per cent drop in alerts and 50 per cent reduction in costs as it needed to employ fewer fraud analysts.
Little wonder that others in the industry followed suit.
Featurespace is now working with bookmaker William Hill, gambling software providers OpenBet and Playtech, and UK National Lottery operator Camelot.
“Our heartland has been providing fraud systems into the gaming sector. But when we looked at the results, we wanted to find out if they would read across into financial services. That was our massively exciting eureka moment,” says Martina.
Some of the world’s largest banks, payment processors and merchant acquirers have now adopted Featurespace’s technology. Among them is TSYS, which offers payment solutions across 80 countries, and a leading global credit card issuer with more than one million UK customers.
Previous fraud systems have relied on batch processing, or historical data, to determine what was fraudulent. But it’s not much use to rely on old-fashioned defences when your opponent continually invents new ways to attack you.
“To be able to stop a fraud attack as it’s occurring is incredibly important. We have the first technology in the world that’s been able to make that happen.
“We’ve had incoming inquiries from around the world. Our reputation has led to huge deals in the UK, Europe, Mexico and the US,” says Martina, who was named one of the 100 ‘Faces of a Vibrant Economy’ by Grant Thornton last year.
A fast-growing company needs to attract and retain good staff – and with working cultures changing, it’s important to keep up with employees’ expectations.
For Martina, this starts with something simple.
“A lot of our people in Cambridge are incredibly bright and have gone to universities where they are well looked after. So we don’t want the world of work to be a shock. One of our mantras is ‘keep the fridges full’.
“We have games evenings and people share their experiences. On Friday, we have a hot lunch come in and the whole company sits down and talks. In that social environment, people will have ideas about how to solve a problem,” she says.
And like many vibrant companies, Featurespace is not tied by traditional working hours.
“We have great brains working for us and brains don’t work in a 9-5 system,” observes Martina. “Having a flexible approach is important – it’s not about measuring somebody’s output by the length of hours they sit at a desk. It’s much more about their contribution with ideas or the development of the technology.
“What we’re hiring is what’s in the head and what’s in the heart.”
More of us may work remotely today, but office space remains important, says Martina. Featurespace has taken another floor at the Broers Building, on the Hauser Forum in Cambridge, to accommodate its growth. It has also opened a US office in Atlanta, where payment firms are clustered.
“It’s a human desire to know where base is and where like-minded colleagues are,” says Martina. “In the US, our commercial team work remotely and from home. So you have to be open-minded as a boss now.”
As a company at the forefront of introducing machine learning to industry, what is Martina’s take on the human cost of the ‘rise of the machines’?
Surprisingly, it’s a question no-one has asked her before, she says.
“I was involved in the internet in the very early days and saw how technologies were launched by young engineers just because they could,” she says. “There were no systems, processes or rigours put around the impact of the technology on society.
“An awful lot of steps have been made now and there’s a lot more pressure on the large internet companies. The morality is still being established for the appropriate checks and balances for life on the web.
“When it comes to the impact of AI on the world – the revolution we are living through – I really hope we don’t have to learn that lesson again.”
When Featurespace’s new clients go live with its technology, Martina sits with them to learn the impact on their business.
“What I’ve learned so far is that the people who were working the alerts – the fraud agents – have said their jobs were mundane. They were working 10 alerts for every one fraud attack.
“They were constantly having to pacify genuine customers having a bad experience.
“Now with our technology, for every 10 alerts they are working, seven are going to be fraud alerts. So it’s improved the quality of the work of the fraud analyst.
“The intelligence we are putting into the decision-making flow is enriching the jobs of people on the frontline.”
Martina King on women at work
On the day we meet, Martina has been speaking at the International Women’s Day Conference at Duxford, organised by Grant Thornton, Lloyds Bank, Birketts and Pure.
It’s clear that preparing for the speech has had a profound impact.
“The more research I did into women at work, the more exasperated I became,” she says.
“Apart from Lord Davies leading the pack and encouraging chairmen of FTSE companies to ensure quotas are hit by setting a target, there’s not really been an awful lot of progress.”
Indeed, the Women Count 2017 report into FTSE 350 companies noted “the percentage of women on executive committees has stagnated at 16 per cent for the second year”.
To Martina, this is all the more surprising because – following jobs in payroll at the Greater London Council and in telesales at The Observer – she was surrounded by female leaders during a decade at the Guardian News and Media, where she was display ad manager.
Among those leaders was Caroline Marland, the first female ad director of a national newspaper, who went on to become MD.
“There was a crowd of us girls behind her,” recalls Martina. “Sly Bailey went on to become CEO of Trinity Mirror. Fiona Morris became the first female production director of a Fleet Street newspaper.
“Fru Hazlitt went on to be CEO of Virgin Radio and commercial director of ITV. Jo Newell was the first female to run the local newspapers in the Guardian Media Group. Dame Carolyn McCall was the first women to be CEO of two FTSE 100 companies. Then there was me.
“So I thought it was job done in media. I thought we’ve then got to work our way through other sectors.”
But preparing for her Duxford speech, Martina was in shock when she looked at who was in those roles today.
“Every one of those roles is now occupied by a man. What is going on?” she asks.
Martina’s star, meanwhile, has continued to rise.
After the Guardian, she went on to work at Capital Radio, as MD of London Stations, before spending five years as Yahoo’s Europe MD.
Her interest in newspapers continued, when she held a non-exec role at Johnston Press, but she returned to technology as MD of Aurasma, the visual browser created by Autonomy, the firm founded by Mike Lynch that was famously – or infamously – sold to Hewlett Packard for $11billion.
It was after that, in 2012, that Martina joined Featurespace as CEO, a company in which Dr Lynch has invested.
So what is preventing more women reaching leadership positions?
“There is something holding women back in the UK,” she says. “An awful lot of employees are doing things to make the working environment better for women. But one of the polls from the conference showed the biggest barriers was women’s confidence.”
She points to the impostor syndrome – a term coined to describe those who feel they are frauds, even if their accomplishments indicate they are the real deal.
“Women are much more likely to have the attributes for a particular promotion but not ask for it, whereas men might know they haven’t got the attributes and still go for it. They are prepared to take a little more risk than women.
“And when it comes to making sure they earn the right amount of money, men are prepared to ask whereas women often won’t ask and end up feeling unappreciated,” she says.
But Martina has helped those around to avoid this path.
Featurespace’s head of marketing Rebecca Lewis recalls: “I started out in Featurespace as product marketing manager. For a while it was me and Martina. With Martina’s support, I was encouraged to build a marketing team and ask for what I wanted.”
She advises others: “Go out and arm yourself with the facts – benchmark what you think you’re worth in the industry. Speak to recruiters. Then you’ve got the confidence to ask.”
Martina adds: “Benchmark your work and try to outperform. It will mean you have more confidence when you go in to have a conversation.”
• Published as part of the Cambridge Independent’s series of features in association with Grant Thornton’s Vibrant Economy strategy.