Written by Doug O'Neill

Success in the start-up world manifests differently for every innovator. For brother-and-sister entrepreneurs Harleen Kaur and Sukh Singh, co-founders of the anti-fake news app Ground, one measure of their success was their recent selection as semi-finalists for the Nashville Creator Awards (held in mid-September), where they pitched the concept and business model of their Waterloo-based start-up before a panel of judges that included Ashton Kutcher and Florida Georgia Line.

Kaur and Singh were chosen from a pool of more than 1,700 applicants from across the Eastern United States, Puerto Rico and Ontario to pitch for some of the $700,000 in funds ear-marked for innovators like themselves. While they didn’t win, their invitation to pitch was a sign of how far they’ve come with their ground-breaking news app, which has 100,000 registered users in 100 countries around the world. “Being able to network and meet potential investors was a definite benefit of being chosen to attend,” says Kaur.

 Kaur and Singh enjoyed an earlier taste of success with their first app, UCiC, a location-based mobile app that enables users in 180 countries to make photo and video requests of one another.  With that venture, the brother-and-sister team, who were born in India and grew up in the Greater Toronto Area, won the Mobile Apps Showdown at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in 2015. It was that innovation that underscored for Kaur and Singh the potential of enabling people around the world to instantly communicate with each other from a location-based platform to counter fake news.

“Our work on uCiC prompted us – especially in light of the explosion of fake news – to consider how location-based communication could help distribute authentic news and counter the proliferation of false information. On uCic, we observed news events happening in the Ukraine – food shortages, cities being cut off, panicked citizens – that weren’t being covered elsewhere,” said Kaur, who previously worked as an engineer for NASA and later became the first female and youngest ever vice-president at Rolls-Royce.  She’d also worked at a start-up in Berlin before going into business with her brother, Sukh, who graduated in engineering from the University of Waterloo and has worked full-time in technology and consulting for such firms as Procter & Gamble and Siemens.

The Ground news app, insists Kaur, isn’t meant to replace journalists. In fact, one of their first hires was broadcast journalist Melissa Long, who previously worked with an NBC affiliate in Atlanta: “Journalists are more important then ever before. Ground fills the information gap between social media and traditional news media.”  Ground aggregates news from three sources: main stream publishers (the app sources news from 15,000 news outlets); verification of breaking news through social media (Reddit, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook); and, thirdly, independent journalists who are Ground users at the location of the news story in question. Kaur explains, “The app uses geofencing to zero in on an event and contacts Ground users in that area to report on what they’re actually seeing in that location, and they’re invited to upload videos and photos as evidence.”

“In essence, our Ground app combats fake news by using on-the-ground witnesses and technology, such as artificial intelligence, to distinguish between what is real and what is fake,” explains Kaur.  The app checks the geolocation of the user uploading the content and whether it’s been tampered with in anyway.

According to Kaur, working on a start-up venture that has four full-time staffers and a few part-timers is very different from her days working for an established company with revenues of $50 million and an infrastructure in place: “On a start-up, there’s less red tape, results are very much in line with the effort you put into the project, and there’s a clear line of accountability. On startups, you can make things happen – in contrast to larger organizations where everything seems to take so long to happen.”

Smaller start-up groups do have their challenges, acknowledges Kaur: “Every day you’re seeking funding and investments. There’s no automatic structure around you. You create everything from scratch. We’ve learned to prioritize on a daily basis. I could be focusing on fund-raising one day, operations another, or I could be putting my energies into marketing and getting the word out about our venture. We get immense satisfaction out of creating something that offers value to the consumer – and that’s what Ground news is providing: authentic news on world events.”  That in itself is a good news story. 

Photo credit Zlatko Cetinic, Images Made Real