What the heck is Banjo? The artificial intelligence firm in your backyard that’s raised $250 million
Damien Patton likes to fly under the radar.
Paradoxically, the founder and CEO of Banjo, a Park City-based artificial intelligence firm, takes leaps in his personal life as an offroading and skiing enthusiast.
Unlike the visibility Skullcandy’s hilltop perch near S.R. 224 affords the consumer headphone brand, it’s not readily apparent to the vacationers, athletes and commuters passing through that Kimball Junction is the nerve center of a global data operation that just raised more than $100 million in its most recent round of funding.
“You’re always excited to see the fact that you’re being successful with it, but actually, I don’t dwell on it,” Patton said in an interview, indicating he prefers instead to think about solving the problems of today and the future — like homelessness, gun violence and the opioid crisis — with big data.
Petabytes of data pass through the unassuming Basin office park that houses Banjo’s global headquarters and around 100 of its employees. An array of monitors displaying a grid of traffic cameras, a heatmap of 911 calls across the country, a news ticker of global events written by a machine-learning algorithm and countless other visualizations of data loom over a bullpen of Banjo employees working at their desks. The voice of a worker speaking on the phone abruptly cuts off as he steps into a booth in the corner and slides a glass door shut, doing what the spies of “Get Smart” couldn’t with their Cone of Silence.
It isn’t stranger than fiction — it’s just one of the amenities.
Checks and balances
Science fiction, from Phillip K. Dick’s 1956 short story “The Minority Report” to the 2008 Batman film “The Dark Knight,” has long depicted the slippery slope of using all-encompassing data to fight crime. And no discussion of AI passes without mention of Skynet, HAL 9000 or Cortana.
The real world is catching up. Congress grills tech execs and the public has become warier of how its personal data is used by global powerhouses like Facebook and Tencent after an escalating series of scandals that revealed where and how they were using it. Patton says he’s aware of the concerns that surround a command center that pulses with information like the one Banjo has created.
“If you’re going to really create change, you need to have the trust of people,” said Patton, who claims a background that includes experience working in Navy intelligence and operations during the Gulf War period in 1991 and as a crime scene investigator stateside.
Banjo claims that it will never sell the data it collects, which includes emergency communications like 911 calls as well as public social media posts. The company says it has sufficient privacy measures in place, including banning facial recognition, scrubbing out personal data and maintaining multiple institutional and technical checks between its departments.
“It’s not something you can get later on,” Patton said. “Once the genie’s out of the bottle … it’s hard to put it back in. So I think it’s really about focusing on the mission and keeping the morality and ethics around the mission from day one.”
Patton’s primary goal with the firm is to help authorities respond to emergencies and fight crime more quickly and efficiently.
Evacuations in the event of a wildfire in Old Town, for instance, could be assisted with data pulled from GPS navigation apps that tell Park City authorities where to send buses and which intersections to open and close. In one case, Patton said, local and state law enforcement agencies conducted a drill consisting of a child abduction scenario where the victim’s location was unknown. Without Banjo’s data, he said, the agencies involved spent thousands of man hours tracking down the child within the day — with his company’s help, they cracked the case in a fraction of the time.
“Within seconds, Banjo was able to give them the information they needed, and they concluded that within minutes the child would have been safely recovered and would have lived,” he said.
The company seeks to develop its “Live Time” response technology through partnerships with governmental institutions as well as private services like Waze, the crowdsourced GPS navigation app, to cut out the “game of telephone” inherent to evolving emergency situations.
Why Park City?
It’s no secret that Utah’s high-tech scene is growing. Entrepreneurs and investors are increasingly lured to the Wasatch Front with small-government incentives and initiatives like Silicon Slopes. But Park City’s “low cost of living” and manageable traffic compared to the Bay Area, as well as its location in the middle of the Wasatch Range, were two of the biggest reasons Patton moved his company’s headquarters from Silicon Valley, he said.
“Your overall lifestyle, from outside activities to all the other things that are intrinsic to a person’s life, are just exponential compared to that of Silicon Valley,” Patton said. “If you add all that up, it just makes a perfect storm for building a company here.”
The Park City area, widely regarded as the most expensive place to live in Utah, is dealing with an affordable housing crisis, and traffic on the two main arteries in and out of the city is of increasing concern to residents, commuters and visitors who find themselves stuck in traffic reaching the interstate. But that’s all relative, Patton said, in comparison to places like San Jose and Manhattan.
“I don’t look at the cost of living here compared to the value you get as expensive,” he said. “People tell me all the time how bad 224 is and I just laugh. … It’s all your perception.”
The company also maintains facilities in Redwood City, California, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. As Banjo plans to double its ranks in Utah, it’s focusing on hiring talent from out of state that may be looking for an escape from California and may not yet have heard about the Silicon Slopes.
The company has also been active in the promotion and development of said slopes, and Thomas Wadsworth, associate managing director of the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, says a company of Banjo’s size and scope settling into Park City indicates that the strategy is working.
“Historically, the general thinking in corporate America is that to get the best workforce you need to be in the biggest cities,” Wadsworth said. “While we’ve had a lot of success from local companies, it’s nice to see some success from outside companies to validate that.”
And for Patton, the company’s success in raising money — about a quarter-billion dollars in total, he said — is a validation of the company’s goal of “reducing human suffering” and his views on data security.
“Because of that, it has attracted people to say ‘we want to invest in this,’ not in the short term for the financial gain but in the long term for humanity.”
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Another ski season is in the books, and much to the relief of the restaurant industry, the outlook, like the weather, is looking sunny.