Last April, OneZero revealed the CEO of digital surveillance firm Banjo, Inc. was once tied to the KKK and involved in the drive-by shooting of a synagogue. In the aftermath, Banjo’s local and state contracts dried up, and CEO and founder Damien Patton was forced to resign.
But new evidence suggests that in the months following OneZero’s report, Banjo quietly rebranded as safeXai. Patton is still a minority shareholder in the company and an inventor of each of its patents.
Within days of OneZero’s report in April 2020, Utah’s department of public safety suspended a $20.7 million contract with Banjo, and Banjo, in turn, suspended all of its operations in Utah, pending a review by the state auditor. Patton resigned and Justin R. Lindsey, a former chief technology officer with the FBI, took over as CEO.
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Then, on February 1, an independent commission convened by the auditor released recommendations for agencies contracting with “advanced software technology” companies. Among the recommendations: agencies should “limit sharing of sensitive data,” “minimize sensitive data collection and accumulation,” and “validate technology claims.” The Salt Lake Tribune suggested it was “a final blow to Banjo.”
But was it?
Documents reveal that in September, 2020 — five months after OneZero’s report — Banjo filed for a new business license, at the same address with the same suite number as Banjo’s headquarters, but under a different name: safeXai. Damien Patton is listed as a historical registered agent, director, and secretary of safeXai in corporate filings going back to 2010 and cited as an inventor of every safeXai patent. He also remains a minority shareholder in the company, according to safeXai’s chief strategy officer, T.J. Marchetti.
Reached by OneZero, Marchetti emphasized that Patton’s role is limited.
“Damien resigned in May 2020 and is not an officer, board member, or affiliated in any way with the day-to-day operations of safeXai,” Marchetti said. “He is a minority shareholder like any other employee who purchased shares in the past. We cannot speak on his behalf.”
Marchetti declined to state what percentage ownership Patton holds in the company.
Though Patton is listed as inventor on all of safeXai’s patents filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, including one published in January, Patton does not own them. (Patton did not respond to a request for comment for this story.) Ownership was assigned to Banjo and has been reassigned to safeXai, meaning that Patton has no legal rights to market or use those patents.
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“Like any other employee, Damien Patton’s rights to IP were and remain non-existent,” Marchetti said.
SafeXai’s limited marketing efforts are virtually identical to Banjo’s. Its website consists of one page that features a mission statement indicating that the company has “embarked on a bold initiative to make the world a safer place… through the use of advanced signal processing and ethical artificial intelligence.” Banjo’s marketing materials similarly touted that the company’s use of “advanced processing and artificial intelligence” would “save lives and reduce human suffering.”
SafeXai officers include Suranga Chandratillake, a partner at Balderton Capital, which led a $16 million funding round for Banjo in 2014; and John Malloy, a general partner at BlueRun Ventures, which was one of Banjo’s earliest backers, investing millions in the company as early as 2011, and has been quoted as speaking on behalf of Banjo investors in press releases, and an article in Inc.
SafeXai’s public messaging has been sparse, and it’s unclear what kind of product the company is building. The company does not have a public Twitter or Facebook account, and while its LinkedIn page connects to dozens of current employees, the company has not yet published a public post. The company’s “core concepts lead,” Hannah Lillywhite, gave a virtual presentation in an event produced by the Center for Anticipatory Intelligence at Utah State University on September 24, 2020. A safeXai machine learning engineer, Krishnamohan Pathicherikollamparambil, spoke on a panel about “IT, Data Science, Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence.” Both are former Banjo employees, according to their LinkedIn profiles.
None of the company’s publicly facing information has mentioned Patton by name.
Meanwhile, Banjo’s contracts with the state of Utah are currently in the air. Chris Hughes, the director of Utah’s division of purchasing and general services, told OneZero, “Now that the audit is complete, we are just waiting from the attorney general’s office on how to proceed with the contract.”
Lindsey, safeXai’s CEO, did not respond to an email request for comment. In an email to OneZero, Marchetti said that, “despite confidence in our past technology and protections of personal privacy,” safeXai would not “pursue prior contracts even after the state’s audit was complete.”
Marchetti’s LinkedIn profile indicates he’s been with safeXai since December 2017. He served as chief strategy officer for Banjo, according to venture capital information site MicroVentures, and is noted as a Banjo board member in a 2014 Variety article about his digital marketing work with Disney and DreamWorks Animation.
Rebranding after a corporate crisis is common. Private security firm Blackwater famously reorganized as Xe Services following a string of horrifying incidents, including one in which several contractors were convicted of varying charges of murder and manslaughter in relation to a 2007 massacre in Nisour Square, Baghdad, in which 17 Iraqi civilians were killed. The company then rebranded again as Academi in 2011, with The Wall Street Journal reporting its executive team was tired of being “the company formerly known as Blackwater,” and quoted its CEO as hoping it would be more “boring.” The company then rebranded a fourth time after a merger and became Constellis Holdings. Similar name changes have occurred with private prison company CoreCivic (formerly Corrections Corporation of America), Altria Group (formerly Philip Morris), and Livestrong (formerly Lance Armstrong Foundation).
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Whether a rebranding strategy will work for Banjo is unclear. Damien Patton founded the company, appeared at conferences as its public face, led all its strategic transitions, and, most importantly, was a lead inventor on all of its intellectual property.
Thom Fladung of Hennes Communications, which has handled corporate communications crises for Fortune 500 companies, says that in rebranding efforts, companies like Blackwater often try to evolve the way their organization does business and the kinds of contracts they take on.
“You can’t communicate your way out of a problem like this,” Fladung says. His advice would be “to completely separate from Patton in every way.”
Marchetti said that’s exactly what safeXai plans to do.
“It’s pretty common for a new CEO of a startup to reset with a clean slate, and Justin [Lindsey] has us focused on a new path,” Marchetti said. “During the fall, we also decided, despite confidence in our past technology and protections of personal privacy, that we were not going to pursue prior contracts even after the state’s audit was complete. It simply didn’t make sense given safeXai’s new direction. Additionally, none of our products in development rely upon Banjo’s past technology or patents.”
Matthew Giles contributed reporting.