Marinus Analytics will soon win anywhere between $500,000 and $3 million to use artificial intelligence to find and bust sex trafficking rings. The North Side-based startup is poised to take home one of the top spots in the prestigious $5 million IBM Watson AI XPRIZE competition. 

On Tuesday, XPRIZE — a Culver City, California-based nonprofit organization formed in 1994 to host public competitions to advance human-centered tech — whittled down the competition from 34 qualifying teams to three finalists, including Marinus Analytics. It’s the only U.S. company left on the ticket.   

The other finalists are Aifred Health, a Montreal-based digital health company that uses AI to personalize mental health treatment choices, and Zzapp Malaria, a Jerusalem-based startup working to eradicate malaria through larviciding, or the practice of targeting breeding sites of disease-carrying mosquitoes. 

Marinus Analytics is known for its suite of artificial intelligence tools called Traffic Jam. That includes a facial recognition solution called FaceSearch. By scraping publicly available images from websites where prostitution services are advertised, Marinus Analytics creates data points for its software, which can then attempt to match the photos to known missing persons. In 2019 alone, the company claims that Traffic Jam helped to identify an estimated 3,800 victims of sex trafficking. 

“In all of the areas that we’re now working … our main goal is to empower the frontline workers with tools that help empower their work, that take massive amounts of unwieldy data and help them … spend more time on the ground instead of in an Excel spreadsheet,” says Emily Kennedy, president and co-founder of Marinus Analytics. 

This technology is not without its detractors, though. Sex workers that voluntarily offer their services online — sometimes legally, sometimes illegally — have voiced concern that this kind of technology is a form of surveillance on their activities, leading to harmful arrests that they never wanted to be a part of in the first place. And, the Black Lives Matter protests that took place last summer have created some serious pushback against facial recognition technology in general. 

“In working with law enforcement, we’ve been thinking a lot about our role within law enforcement, and we have an influential ability through trainings that we offer and how we present these tools,” Kennedy explains. “Making sure that our training involves talking about victim-centered policing … which basically means that the victims’ needs take priority over anything else in a case … is so important.”

To date, Marinus Analytics has raised about $1.74 million in funding through various social innovation grants from The Forbes Funds, the Idea Foundry and UpPrize in Pittsburgh, as well as from Toyota and a number of National Science Foundation Small Business Innovation Research grants. 

It’s not a matter of if Marinus Analytics will win a huge cash prize in the final stage of the XPRIZE competition, but a question of how much: first place will take home $3 million, second place will snag $1 million and third place will receive $500,000. 

With that cash, Kennedy says that her team of 12 full-time employees and a few contractors will work to improve their work in new domains. In human services, the team’s goal is to enhance the interviewing processes of social workers by finding better insights in the data — like using text analysis to figure out if overdoses increased in a certain neighborhood over a certain time frame. 

Marinus Analytics also hopes to use big data to identify phishing and fraud schemes that are perpetrated across classified ads in potentially hundreds of cities. The startup has already begun working with IBM on this process to build tools that will help investigators identify “the largest streams of online phishing and cybercrime.”

The final pitches will take place in June of this year, according to XPRIZE, but it’s not yet clear if the event will happen in-person or virtually, Kennedy says. In any case, she expects to put an emphasis on storytelling and in highlighting Marinus Analytics’s capacity for good.