The journey from university spin-out to government supplier and pioneer in combating online harms
“ACE is something that needs to exist. It provides a mechanism to sit in the middle to connect these small, agile, innovative organisations with government organisations that simply aren’t structured to do that.”
– Ian Stevenson, Cyan Forensics CEO
For Cyan Forensics, being a member of ACE’s Vivace community has offered a fast-track to working with government while still a start-up, accelerated development of its technology, and given it credibility and confidence to grow.
ACE – the Accelerated Capability Environment – is a Home Office capability within the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism that rapidly delivers solutions to challenges facing frontline security and public safety missions.
Vivace is a community of companies led by QinetiQ which won the contract to deliver ACE for the Home Office in 2017. A new contract for a two-year continuation of ACE was signed by QinetiQ and the Home Office earlier this year.
Cyan Forensics helps law enforcement as well as cloud and social media companies to find and block harmful content from paedophiles and terrorists.
A member of ACE’s expert industry and academia Vivace community since 2017, it has played a key role in speeding up online child abuse investigations by boosting the capability of the Home Office’s Child Abuse Image Database (CAID).
ACE was tasked with digitising CAID’s largely manual processes, helping develop three new technology tools which have now been rolled out to forces nationwide. One of these was Cyan Forensics’ fast forensic triage system which compares images on seized devices to an index of CAID images within seconds.
These tools were described as ‘game-changing’ by then Home Secretary Sajid Javid during a well-reported visit in 2019 to the CAID Innovation Lab, which ACE set up.
Fast-track to government work
Cyan Forensics was a spin-out from a research project at Edinburgh Napier university in 2016. Prior to joining the Vivace community, its innovative work attracted funding from the Innovate UK Small Business Research Initiative led to well-received work with police.
This work led to an introduction to the CAID team, who were looking for small, niche suppliers for their digitisation project. The fit was good, but there was still a key element missing – the mechanism for CAID to engage a small company for a pilot project within a complex government procurement landscape geared heavily towards traditional big suppliers.
Looking to bridge the gap between innovative start-up knowledge and government need, the CAID team was introduced to ACE, which specialises in solving fast-moving frontline law enforcement challenges. It has commercial arrangements in place to work with small and medium-sized suppliers, enabling it to bridge the gap between government and smaller, highly innovative companies.
Cyan Forensics founder and CEO Ian Stevenson said: “Government departments aren’t designed to be innovative, but they need to be consumers of innovation.
“We knew that it was going to be difficult to work directly with the Home Office, so we were delighted to find that there was a mechanism for assessing the potential of new technology and identifying where innovation is happening.
“ACE is something that needs to exist. It provides a mechanism to sit in the middle to connect these small, agile, innovative organisations, with government organisations that simply aren’t structured to do that.”
International credibility of HMG as customer
There have also been wider benefits to Cyan Forensics from collaborating with ACE via Vivace. Ian points to a long history of innovation taking place at university level in the UK, but then subsequently heading overseas. ACE, however, offers an alternative path to work sooner and more closely with the UK government.
Working with ACE has also helped accelerate the pace of the CAID project. Ian believes similar significant progress could have taken “five years” without ACE’s backing. This success has not only shifted the company’s focus to working more with government, but also accelerated its growth.
Ian said: “We’re still at the stage where we’re investing heavily with the expectation of future returns, which means we need to raise money from investors. Being able to show you have one of the most respected organisations in the world as your customer makes our business far more investable.
“Being able to point to the Home Secretary seeing a demonstration of our software on the national news, and our software being rolled out across UK policing, makes getting into international markets far easier because the UK, especially in law enforcement, is still hugely respected internationally.”
He added that working with ACE has also given Cyan Forensics the “confidence” to do a lot of other work, while the company tries to “give back” by encouraging other companies to explore this “innovation pathway” and the role of organisations such as ACE and the Vivace community.
Bringing together public sector challenges with cutting edge technological thinking is a compelling joining up of innovation and economic, as well as societal, impact. ACE, powered by Vivace, is the key enabling step that makes this possible.