“We start where Google stops,” says Ammad Ahmad, co-founder and chief operating officer of Atheneum, to explain what his “expert networks” business does. The company has just unveiled a £110m funding round, as growth continues to accelerate.
Ahmad points to one of the contradictions of the modern world – while the explosion of information provides unprecedented access to intelligence and insight for anyone who cares to look, there is so much data available that it is often difficult to see the wood for the trees.
“Society is suffering with an information overload,” says Ammad. “What we’ve been able to achieve is to simplify that overload and provide clients with direct access to very specific expertise.”
Founded in 2010, Atheneum has spent more than a decade building a global network of more than 550,000 experts and executives in a broad range of industries. Each time clients need to source specialist expertise and insight on a specific market trend or industry issue, Atheneum’s technology identifies the ideal experts in its network to provide that intelligence.
Clients have the option of engaging directly with relevant experts and professionals themselves, or arranging interviews conducted by Atheneum’s team, in more than 40 different languages. The company also offers quantitative analysis through bespoke surveys of its experts.
Clients include the world’s 10 largest strategy consulting firms, leading accountants and private equity investors, as well as a wide range of corporates. “The common thread is that all our clients need market intelligence and want to connect directly with the experts who are in a position to provide it,” Ahmad explains.
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It is a model that has gained real traction in recent times. The company grew 45% during 2020, despite the pressures of the Covid-19 pandemic, and sales doubled over the first seven months of 2021. It now employs 500 staff across 11 offices, including bases in London, Munich and Shanghai and New York, with a management team led by Ahmad and his co-founders Mathias Wengeler and Marta Margolis.
The key to Atheneum’s success, Ahmad believes, has been its ability to connect clients with the right experts at speed – interviews are often set up in less than 24 hours. “Companies have long turned to data and insights to break ranks from the competition and to capture growth opportunities,” he says. “As an expert networks platform, we are making it easier, faster and more accessible for all businesses to tap into rich resources of intelligence to support agile companies around the world to reach their growth goals faster.”
For their part, Atheneum’s experts are willing to participate because they welcome the opportunity to share the knowledge and views they have accumulated – and see an opportunity to build out their own networks. The company also pays its experts a small fee for their time, though many choose to contribute this payment to charity.
Investment in technology is a key element of Atheneum’s business model. Automated processes enable the business to rapidly identify pools of experts for clients with a particular need. And looking forward, Ahmad sees an opportunity to exploit machine learning and artificial intelligence tools to launch new products for clients. In 10 years of building its network, sourcing experts and conducting research, the company has accumulated a wealth of data and intelligence. Offering clients new opportunities to mine that data for insight is a potentially valuable new revenue stream.
“Our vision is to build a fully digital cockpit for primary research – a one-stop-shop to gather raw data from surveys, virtual focus groups and in-depth interviews, all delivered by our evolving suite of products,” Ahmad says.
The company’s new funding will help in that process, while also giving the company more firepower to focus on marketing and business development. The investment round was led by the growth capital firm Guidepost Growth Equity, with existing investors also participating – including Crosslantic Capital Management, Michael Brehm, Vogel Communications Group, and Atheneum’s own founding management team.
Despite its rapid growth, Ahmad believes the company has only scratched the surface of what is possible. The data and intelligence market is worth $22bn a year, he points out, with clients determined to exploit advances in research and analytic to secure competitive advantage.
Most of Atheneum’s own clients are subscribers to the company’s platform, tapping into its expert network as and when they need to on a “research-as-a-service” model. Others engage the business for one-off projects or specific exercises. “Google is an amazing resource,” Ahmad adds, “but what our clients really need is that primary intelligence, direct from the experts and professionals leading their industries”.