Hiya, a Whitepages spinout, nabs $18M for its smart caller ID technology

Ingrid Lunden
Hiya came to life a year ago when it was spun out by Whitepages to take on TrueCaller and others in the world of smart caller ID services.

Hiya came to life a year ago when it was spun out by Whitepages to take on TrueCaller and others in the world of smart caller ID services. Using machine learning analytics on a vast database of calling data (3.5 billion calls to date), Seattle-based Hiya's mission has been to supercharge the humble phone call -- by providing detailed information about who is calling you, whether it's a regular person or an IRS fraudster.

Now a fully independent company, Hiya is today announcing its first outside funding to grow its business: a Series A of $18 million led by Balderton with participation also from Nautilus Venture Partners and Lumia Capital.

Making a phone call is the oldest and possibly most neglected feature of a mobile phone these days, and Alex Algard -- a Swede who founded and led Whitepages but left that business to lead and build Hiya -- told TechCrunch in an interview that the funding will be used to change that perception by adding in more services to make calls more useful and actionable.

"We recognise that there has been remarkable little innovation on what is the core app of the smartphone, the phone app itself," he said. "We think this is a massive opportunity, and we're partnering with smartphone OEMs and wireless carriers to provide innovation as deeply as possible."

The cash infusion comes after a year of pretty impressive growth for the startup: Hiya already has 20 million users in 196 countries using its services to screen calls and messages, by virtue of the fact that it deep partnerships with carriers like T-Mobile and AT&T, and Samsung and ZTE, two of the world's biggest phone makers.

Companies like these integrate Hiya's technology directly into select models of their phones and diallers; and for those not on those networks and using phones made by those OEMs -- namely the iPhone, where Apple keeps the calling experience close -- Hiya also has an app.

Hiya's growth comes at an interesting juncture in the mobile world. When it comes to communicating on smartphones in the modern world, a lot of the focus is on messaging apps, where you can better control who you chat with, whether it's via a text-based message or an audio or video call. But there's also a trend in the mobile world where we are seeing some smart tech solutions emerging to evolve some of the more legacy functions of phones into the modern era.

One of the reasons why non-native messaging apps have proven to be so popular is that they have let people control their communications experiences in a better way: for example, with Messenger, you connect with people who are your contacts already, and those who are not can be relegated never to be seen by you.

And you can increasingly use that platform for much more, such as sending money or finding out movie times (or sending stickers). In that regard, SMS and phone calls have been overrun on two fronts: by technology, and by spam and unsolicited inbound contact, often from people you have no interest in hearing from.

That's all changing, however. Just as Google and others have been working on making good old SMS more useful with the development of RCS, and Zipwhip (also based out of Seattle) is building a backend to help businesses manage their SMS usage in a more up-to-date way, Hiya is attempting to bring back some dignity to the neglected phone dialler.

By providing a big infusion of data behind the scenes, the idea is that Hiya's tech gives you a bigger and better picture of what is going on behind each ring of your phone. It's coming not a moment too soon, it seems, as carriers are seeing their core revenues and uses (and subsequent brand loyalty) getting hit every day by "over the top" app providers.

"We are restoring trust in the phone call," Algard says. "There are so many unidentified phone calls coming through and a good portion are unwanted nuisance calls. People are no longer picking up the phone when it rings because of that enormous erosion of trust."

Hiya's first year of business was focused on inbound calls -- essentially the data that you see on your phone screen when a call comes in -- the startup is now expanding that to also consider the business opportunity of outbound.

It's building a service for businesses so that they can customise how their caller ID looks when they call people, with more details about addresses and other services. These come up not just when a call is being made, but when a user looks at a call log later and needs to follow up on something, such as the location of a business and how to get there. That has a lot of potential for companies and for us as users: imagine seeing your purchasing history and whether an order is ready after you phone in a prescription to your pharmacy.

I asked about how spammers and unwanted calls are identified, and Algard was unequivocal in noting that whatever data the company amasses and parses comes only from the call log data that the company collects by way of its integrations with carriers -- not from the content of the calls themselves. (As an example of how this might work: if a particular number is connecting with dozens of people over a short period of time and the calls are not lasting for more than a few seconds, you can start to build a profile of what kind of caller this might be.)

Still, there is a clear opportunity to start to enhance Hiya -- as and when people consent to call recordings, such as in cases of customer service calls -- to use natural language processing to analyse conversations and use these to also inform the kind of data that the startup provides both to users and companies, and to help build a better picture of what you, the user, might deem an unwanted call.

And there is other evidence that the space of on-phone, native services like calls and SMS is not quite over just yet. Witness the news that Apple recently acquired the team of messaging app Init.ai, and may end up using some of its tech, too -- which was based around being able to offer more intelligence around interactions between businesses and their customers, tapping into natural language and voice recognition.

"Voice is at the top of the agenda right now when it comes to the user interface," said Lars Fjeldsoe-Nielsen, Balderton's partner who led its investment in Hiya and is now also joining the board. That trend will be an interesting one to watch as we start to see tech companies tackle old frontiers like phone calls, as well as new ones. 

Hiya is not disclosing its valuation with this round.