EPIC Startup Spotlight: Grandma4 min read
The Entrepreneurship and Product Innovation Center (EPIC) of the American University of Armenia (AUA) is proud to introduce Grandma, one of the startups in the current Spring 2021 batch. Grandma is a machine learning solution that detects and blocks hate/violent speech from the Internet, creating a safe digital environment for users and facilitating crime detection by the police. The startup team members are Anahit Melkonyan (BAB ‘23), Elina Israyelyan (BSDS ‘23), and Ellen Muradyan. They shared with us the story behind founding their startup Grandma, opportunities for success, future goals, and aspirations.
What’s your backstory, and how did you come up with the idea?
We came up with the idea of Grandma during the tragedies that occurred in 2020. The war has affected our lives significantly, and like many others, we were spending most of our time on the Internet constantly searching for news from the frontline. And it was at that time that we detected an escalating problem: absent Internet regulations, bullying and expressions of racism, and even terrorism proliferated on the Internet at an astonishing rate. Such words and phrases were reaching millions of people and causing various psychological disorders among many. Those were clear cases of hate crime, which is illegal in many countries, yet no single individual or organization was able to monitor the whole situation. Therefore, we decided to create Grandma and use artificial intelligence to understand and eliminate the causes of hate and violent speech.
Grandma comes in the form of an extension in Chrome that users activate and then roam the Internet freely. Our browser extension will detect hate and violent speech and store it in a dedicated database, which is accessible by the police right away.
What opportunities do you see that may result in making your startup a huge success?
Anahit Melkonyan: When we look at the statistics, hate and violent speech is increasing throughout the world as more and more people are moving to online platforms. We researched and learned that 91% of Internet users in Armenia have witnessed hate speech, and one out of three have themselves been victims. If left unattended, this manifestation of hate may lead to real-life tragedies, including self-harm, physical violence, and even suicide. That is the reason why people are becoming more and more careful when using the Internet. Businesses and schools are trying to protect their respective communities, while parents are searching for ways to monitor their children’s Internet use, and governments are trying to observe and detect such harmful occurrences.
How would you answer those that say that your solution encroaches freedom of speech?
Our solution does not violate people’s freedom of speech and does not stop them from expressing their points of view. All their writings will remain online and will be seen by other users who do not use our Chrome extension. Our solution is for those individuals who choose not to see hate and crime speech. For them, all such texts are blurred.
Who are your potential customers?
Anahit Melkonyan: Our customers can be parents who are concerned about the psychological wellbeing of their children and want to monitor their activities, as well as businesses and schools that want to have a safe virtual environment for their employees and students.
What are you doing today, and what are your future goals?
Anahit Melkonyan: Our startup was selected as the Armenian winner of Justice Accelerator. This is an accelerator organized by the United Nations office on drugs and crime, dedicated to promoting global peace and security. Hence, we received funding from that source. In terms of its technological design, we have already developed the machine-learning model that scans content and assigns the respective toxicity percentage. Now we are in the process of developing and registering the Chrome extension. In terms of community engagement, we are partnering with two Armenian NGOs, one international NGO, and Violence Against Children Global Partnership, a public-private collaboration between UN agencies and governments. We also received collaboration offers from autism centers in Canada and Ireland which have already registered to use Grandma when it is completely developed and ready. In the future, we plan to enlarge our user base by expanding our circle of partners and engaging middle and high schools.
What does success look like for your startup?
Ellen Muradyan: For us, success means making the Internet accessible and friendly to every individual user, especially to those vulnerable targets receiving hate and violent speech. Our goal is to help them to benefit from the Internet without having to face its disadvantages. Also, we aim to prevent the spread of hate crimes by making people feel accountable for their words.
What are the biggest challenges that you are facing today?
Anahit Melkonyan: At the moment, Grandma only detects hate and violent speech expressed in English. So that makes us work globally instead of locally. Hence, our biggest challenge is developing an Armenian database for use in Armenia.
What are the benefits of the EPIC incubator program?
Anahit Melkonyan: We know that startups are prone to making mistakes, and we want to minimize all such incidents. To do that, we are learning from the great opportunities EPIC provides. It offers us steadiness as we receive constant support from the people working in the academic environment and from those who have successfully crossed many entrepreneurship barriers. Also, getting involved in such an endeavor sometimes feels lonely, as hardly any individual shares your experience or understands your emotions. Here again, we rely on EPIC, as it provides us with a large network and connects us with like-minded individuals and startupers with whom we can share our thoughts.
Who are your mentors and how are they helpful to you?
Anahit Melkonyan: Our mentors are Lana Hakobyan, Tsovinar Babayan and Gor Ojyan. Lana is specialized in law, and she helped us define and identify different types of hate crimes. Gor is specialized in data science and machine learning, and he is instrumental in complementing our technological knowledge, and Tsovinar is a business development advisor. She supports us in finding ways to market and expand our user base.
The Entrepreneurship and Product Innovation Center (EPIC) is a platform of the American University of Armenia (AUA) for promoting entrepreneurial education, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and startup venture incubation. EPIC provides an ecosystem for emerging entrepreneurs consisting of first-class facilities and collaborative workspace, programs and events, and a network of mentors, advisors, and investors. EPIC fosters the understanding and application of entrepreneurship in students and faculty at AUA to craft high-impact multidisciplinary ventures.