An interview with Satish Appalakutty, President & CEO of Vistalytics, Inc.
With headquarters in the Silicon Valley, Vistalytics Inc. is a fintech company that provides equity research tools for fund managers that leverages NLP techniques, machine learning, and Artificial Intelligence models. Described as “equity research on steroids,” their flagship product, Vistalytics Edge, provides natural language searching of financial documents and SEC filings and allows users to create portfolio models and conduct back-testing. The company is generously lending use of its software to students in the upcoming class Student Managed Investment Fund (FI-356) at GGU. President & CEO Satish Appalakutty, interviewed here, is responsible for Finance, Corporate Strategy, Operations at the Vistalytics.
How would you describe the current state of the industry in terms of getting information?
While funds have always been technologically savvy, new technologies have dramatically changed how funds access and digest information. Hedge funds have historically thrived on information that gives them an edge in the market. For fund managers with equity portfolios, equity research provides the edge. Equity research reveals the major- and micro-currents in the market, how new ideas are taking shape and old ideas are withering away to the winds of change. This brings to light the new leadership that is emerging in industry groups and ecosystems. Equity research powered by technology has become more efficient, more comprehensive and more real time.
New technology companies like Vistalytics are at the forefront of this revolution to bring forth not only new information but a whole new understanding that can drive investment ideas to profitability. The arrival of Big data, NLP, AI, and machine learning has changed how funds created the edge and used it in their quest to beat the market. Vistalytics uses NLP techniques and AI models to sift through large volumes of filings and market data every day to provide an edge to fund managers.
Simple question: Why do investors use databases and what is their experience now?
People use database search in the investment context to discover investment opportunities or to validate their current positions. Funds typically employ research analysts to understand a company’s strategy and to create a model of where a company is and what it is trying to do in the marketplace. This helps in understanding the current value and future potential of a company. Obviously, this is a time-consuming process because an analyst has to digest every piece of data & information about a company and reflect that in his model.
This is where search technology can help. Digitizing the information and making it searchable cuts down this time the analyst has to spend on investigating a company or an industry. Vistalytics has built a very sophisticated search engine that enables analysts to search with a natural language that they already use every day and with financial terms they are familiar with. Thanks to Google, search has become a familiar, useful technology for most people. At Vistalytics, we are enhancing the search engine to be financially savvy, and Natural Language based
Some popular searches that we have seen are companies that have corrected recently but have great fundamentals, recent IPO’s breaking out from their base, etc. These are simple queries but to get an answer to these, it would take great effort…
What do you think the problem or key challenge is for casual and/or professional investors, in general?
There is a deluge of information in the market and the problem for casual or professional investors is staying on top of this information. Professional investors have a method to this madness and that’s the difference. The most important decisions facing an investor are where to invest and if you are invested, when should you unwind. Each company has its own financial data, SEC filings, call transcripts, product news, and management changes and we have thousands of companies in the market. This makes the volume of data so enormous, not even a decent team of analysts can hope to cover every bit of data that is available. As an investor, you want to be sure you are aware of all the important things about a company and have not missed anything. Any of these bits of data can affect the valuation of a company and force you to make a decision.
What has changed in terms of information in the Finance industry over the last two decades?
Information has become more democratized over the years in the financial industry. What was available to only a few funds previously is available more easily to everyone. The availability of documents on the SEC site is a huge win for every investor. With the help big data, NLP and AI technologies, now we are able to distill insights from all the data available to us from filings, call transcripts, and other sources.
Information is of two types: what can be gathered by talking to experts in the industry and to company management and what is available on the SEC through company filings. Both types of information have their place: while you can get more details when you get closer to company management, the insights you can get by observing companies in an industry are immeasurable. Vistalytics is focused on using the latest technologies to uncover insights from market data and filings that are widely available.
What is the impact of natural language searching, Google, and AI for the finance profession?
Natural language interface makes searching more human-friendly. Natural language interface makes the enormous financial database more accessible and scalable. Humans are built to understand and process ambiguous language constructs. The insight to discern and clarify ambiguity comes from the context and domain knowledge. Most search engines don’t support free-flowing search queries in natural language but they are getting better at handling complex questions at a rapid pace. This is even more important in the financial domain where we are awash with text information, and there is a great appetite for getting answers to questions within a short span of time. At Vistalytics, we are trying to use NLP, AI methods to make sense of text documents. We are also working on savvy natural language interface to search this data at scale.
What problem does your product seek to solve?
At Vistalytics, we are building products for fund managers and analysts to find profitable scenarios and patterns in the market data. Currently, fund managers can go out there and buy financial databases from companies like Morningstar or FactSet but they can’t easily search through this data. For example, if you want to find fast-growing companies in the retail sector from China that have recently corrected deeply, it can be done within a few seconds with a single query on Vistalytics Edge. Once you find a scenario that you think is a worthy idea, you can back-test this and see how profitable it really is. Because Vistalytics Edge is really fast and scalable, we can do a search and back-test within a few minutes to verify whether our idea is going to work or not.
Can you give me some example searches you think people most need?
Some popular searches that we have seen are companies that have corrected recently but have great fundamentals, recent IPO’s breaking out from their base, etc. These are simple queries but to get an answer to these, it would take great effort when you are working with Bloomberg or other products. With Vistalytics Edge, this would take just a few minutes.
Bloomberg has a comprehensive product that has the ability to research a company thoroughly but it does not have an easy way to search and backtest. Alpha-sense and Sentieo are other startups focused primarily on equity research for analysts. Our product focuses on natural language search to find profitable patterns / ideas in data, help mine new opportunities in a profitable manner.
Please tell us about your connection with GGU.
We were introduced to GGU by Bob Scannell, an adjunct professor at GGU. We are excited about working with the students and we are hoping to understand how our interface is working and how it can be improved for others.
What’s next for your company?
We are working on improving our data extraction technology to cover more diverse sources and documents. Search for patterns and validation through back-test will be more powerful and meaningful when more comprehensive data is available to Vistalytics engine. We would like to offer fund managers a robust way to search for ideas and patterns in data.
For information more on the company see www.vistalytics.com.
More about Satish Appalakutty
President & CEO Satish Appalakutty is responsible for Finance, Corporate Strategy, Operations of Vistalytics. He has 17 years of experience in the technology industry: Prior to Vistalytics Inc., Satish founded NeoClarus Inc., a leading provider of Compliance software, Encover a service-sales provider, and was a part of the initial team at eHealthInsurance.com, Decide.com, and KivaSoft. He holds a Master’s Degree in Management from Poona University, Poona, India.