Eureka moment: Verafin: From mining robots to fighting crime

Aug 28th, 2017

By Susan Flanagan

From left are Verafin founders Raymond Pretty, Brendan Brothers and Jamie King. Photo by David Howells.
Eureka moment: Verafin: From mining robots to fighting crime

Local tech company Verafin credits Memorial with much of its success since launching 14 years ago.

When three Memorial engineering graduates set out to start a tech company using robotic research completed while still students at Memorial in 2003, they had no idea that they would end up employing the technology they developed for the mining industry to fight money laundering and fraud.

How it all started

It was the fall of 2002 when Jamie King (B.Eng.’99), Raymond Pretty (B.Eng.’01) and Brendan Brothers (B.Eng.’02) were under the tutelage of Dr. Ray Gosine, vice-president (research) at Memorial, developing software to help robots navigate underground in a dangerous environment.

The research was fulfilling. The trio felt they knew where they were going — until a meeting with Dave Kelly turned everything on its head.

“We just had to decide which path to take – mining robotics or anti-money laundering.”— Brendan Brothers

It was Mr. Kelly, a Memorial business alumnus, who suggested that the students should consider using the software they had developed to combat financial crime.

“This was the beginning of the eureka moment,” said Mr. Brothers. “We could see that the applications of this technology would be able to solve both problems. We just had to decide which path to take – mining robotics or anti-money laundering.”

Seeing as there was not a huge market for the mining technology and there was a massive market for anti-fraud software, the banking technology won over. The trio has been assisting financial institutions ever since.

When Verafin was born at the Genesis Centre in March 2003, their very first customer was the Newfoundland and Labrador Credit Union.

Fast forward 14 years and the company of three has grown to more than 300 employees. Verafin now dominates the market with more than 1,700 customers in Canada and the U.S.

Managing growth

“Memorial University has been invaluable to us. We have been able to handpick the brightest and best out of the university through work terms and graduates. We hire a lot of new Canadians who graduate from Memorial,” said Mr. Brothers, adding that they have hired 50 new people in the last six months.

At Verafin, teams are reorganized monthly based on the problems they are trying to solve. Employees’ ability to rapidly shift their thinking is a must.

“Growth and change is what makes us exciting, rather than problematic. Being able to adapt to change is one of the most important things we look for in new employees,” said Mr. Brothers.

“Our employees don’t have a hard time adjusting to change as long as we give them interesting enough problems to work on.”

Team targets and accountability

Verafin has monthly, quarterly and annual planning cycles.

They find a single goal for one year, define the objectives, organize teams to realize those objectives and then review results monthly and quarterly.

“We have big targets every quarter for our sales team,” Mr. Brothers continued.

“When we get an award, or when the company gets recognized, we make sure it’s the whole team. The best recognition is when we help avoid human trafficking or when we alert an institution that one of their elderly members is being taken advantage of. The best part of this work is hearing the stories of what we caught or were able to prevent.”

Moving to the cloud

Business really improved when the three founders realized that by moving to a cloud environment, where they can analyze and compare data from all client institutions, they could identify cross-institution money laundering and fraud.

“It paid off big time,” said Mr. Brothers. “Putting everyone’s data in the same place allows us to see trends of fraud and test new analytics. We can now alert financial institutions about bad actors moving from one institution to another.”

Not only that, but Verafin has developed human trafficking analytics. Using data from public sources, combined with client banking information, they can generate powerful alerts that law enforcement agencies take seriously.

Core values

“We have three core values: continuous improvement, team work and caring. Everyone here believes in the core purpose to fight crime, and everyone believes we can actually make a difference. That in itself is intrinsically motivating,” said Mr. Brothers, who explained that Verafin has a charity called called VeraCares, which sponsors a softball tournament, a run to raise money to help survivors of human trafficking and also sends employee volunteers to help at Choices for Youth.

This story first appeared in the August 28, 2017, edition of The Telegramas part of a regular summer series on research at Memorial University.