From automated expense management to marketing insights: How PolyBox pivoted with AI-powered analytics

If you haven't already, explore the first chapter in Polybox’s innovation story and understand the whole journey around their partnership with the National Innovation Centre for Data.
Read the full story here.


The company

PolyBox is a small technology start-up, founded by Newcastle University Business School Digital Business MSc graduates Nikolaos Benopoulos and Rojin Yarahmadi.

Their initial aim was to improve the expense returns process for businesses by minimising the amount of manual work involved and by automatically scanning receipts using Optical Character Recognition (OCR) technology. Overtime, PolyBox has pivoted towards providing data analysis for marketing agencies, incorporating AI to enhance data understanding.

The problem

PolyBox embarked on a mission to innovate the expense management process. They questioned the possibilities with the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD): "What we wanted to figure out with the National Innovation Centre for Data was, was it possible to have itemised expense management. When we take a picture of a receipt, can it export every single item? If yes, how can that help us to prepare better data for the users?”. 

Their journey was an iterative process, involving rigorous testing on a plethora of receipts, each with its unique style and colour palette, from American receipts to European. Rojin Yarahmadi, PolyBox Co-founder reflects on the challenge: "Receipts don’t have a very specific style and because of that it’s a little bit harder for anyone to create something." 

The crux was not only to validate the feasibility of the concept but also to measure its value: "We wanted to check A, is it possible? We got our answer that it is possible, and we got to a working algorithm at the end, and B is it worth it?" The feedback suggested a resounding yes. 


Pivot or persevere?

The path to customer validation was not without obstacles.

Rojin candidly shares the commercial hurdles: "Getting to sales was taking four to five months. The process was slow and we felt right now it is not a good market for us."

The financial sector's slow pace and the challenge of convincing traditional businesses like construction and shredding companies of this new tool's benefits led to a strategic pivot towards marketing agencies, a domain where they had established connections and opportunities. 


PolyBox Co-founders Rojin Yarahmadi and Nick Benopoulos.

Business impact

The collaboration with the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD) allowed PolyBox to quickly prototype and test their concepts, significantly reducing the development time from years to months. This acceleration enabled PolyBox to pivot effectively to their new focus on marketing data analysis, contributing to their growth and facilitating their fundraising efforts. 

Looking back on the collaboration, Rojin says “The impact was that we got to a place where we could make decisions very fast. If we were making that in house it would take us a year, two years or so. With the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD) in six months we had an MVP. We were introduced to a lot of different analysis techniques including machine learning. The core of what we are doing hasn’t changed. But it really helped with what we are doing right now.”  

 Emphasising the need for start-ups to quickly and iteratively validate their business model hypothesis to gain market traction, Rojin concludes “Without the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD) we would still be testing and figuring things out.” 

"The project gave us that boost to shift our business model while raising investment. I'm really glad that we had the NTCA project. As a start-up, that process is very difficult to figure out.” 

Rojin Yarahmadi, Co-founder and CEO, Polybox

Skills transfer

Through the partnership with The National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD), Rojin and their team at PolyBox have undergone a significant skills transformation. Rojin shares, "The new way of how we do things was a significant departure from our previous methods. This included using GitHub, AWS Ground Truth, Azure Cognitive Services... it was really helpful to me." This exposure to advanced platforms has been crucial for their day-to-day operations, particularly for data analysis and machine learning. 

The skills transfer extended beyond the core team. A student intern from Durham University gained eye-opening experience in real-world data analysis, allowing them to make informed career decisions. "It really helped him to make career decisions and he gained a lot of experience in real world projects," Rojin recalls, emphasising the intern's growth in using Python for data processing and analysis. 

Rojin also acknowledges the value of mentorship provided by the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD), describing it as vital for start-ups. "Having a mentor as a start-up is very important and the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD) does that," she notes. This guidance has enabled PolyBox to foster a learning environment where even junior members of the team can grow and contribute significantly to projects. 

The comprehensive documentation and project management strategies imparted by the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD) have become a staple in PolyBox's operations, ensuring that these new skills are continually referenced and leveraged.

Rojin describes the National Innovation Centre for Data’s (NICD’s) unique offer best: "The National Innovation Centre for Data departs from the traditional consultancy model. They don't build a solution and hand it over; it's more of a reciprocal knowledge-sharing process.”  

Rojin says “Everyone involved, including interns, gain understanding and skills allowing for ongoing independent work." She continues, “I'm not sure if any start-up at our level can afford an expert team like this in-house, even after investment. I really like that about this program”. 



Reflecting on their experiences about working with data scientists Peter Michalák and Antonia Kontaratou, Rojin highlighted their helpfulness throughout the project.

This included:

  • Communication: Rojin appreciates the open communication lines, saying, "Peter and Antonia were on our project, and they were great, both of them. The communication was excellent. If I had any questions during the week, they were coming back in less than an hour."
  • Problem solving and analysis: She highlights their problem-solving skills and analytical approach: "If we had any problem, they both were doing different styles of analysis for us, so both of them are coming with new ideas that might complement each other or have another output for the project. So that was very very interesting."
  • On team dynamics and learning: Rojin speaks highly of the learning environment fostered by Peter and Antonia, noting, "I really liked how the dynamic of the team worked. I remember Peter was very focused on some specific elements and Antonia was very focused on other elements of the project." 

"Collaborating with Rojin was an excellent experience marked by her exceptional productivity, adaptability, and drive.

Despite the escalating complexity of the project, which involved exploration of new tools such as AWS Ground Truth, Azure Cognitive Services, and open-source pre-trained deep learning models, Rojin and her team met with us weekly with a big smile and demonstrated unwavering dedication.

I’m delighted to see PolyBox leveraging the new knowledge in its pursuit to become a thriving technology start-up.” 

Peter Michalák, Data Scientist, the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD)


The future of PolyBox

PolyBox, steered by Rojin's vision, is already reaping the benefits of their data analysis services. Looking ahead, Rojin is enthusiastic about the next phase: “So right now, the data analysis side is up and running and working. We are implementing solutions for marketing teams and marketing agencies." Rojin aims to incorporate AI to revolutionise the marketing sector by enabling platforms to answer complex data queries. 

Rojin recognises the challenges marketing teams face and sees AI as a solution: "Marketing teams are under pressure to use data tools. There may be one person in a business responsible for marketing. They don’t have the experience or skills and are doing a lot of manual work." By leveraging AI, PolyBox hope to automate tasks that currently burden marketing teams, thereby streamlining their workflow. 

Rojin's experience with the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD) has been transformative, prompting them to advocate for their services: “Working with the National Innovation Centre for Data directly really changed the game. I am always recommending them to people." She cites the team's efficiency, flexibility, and expertise as the top reasons for their endorsement.

This collaboration is set to continue, with PolyBox keen to delve deeper into AI for marketing, a testament to the successful partnership fostered with the National Innovation Centre for Data. 


"With the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD) team, we managed to progress faster than we could ever do in-house. That gave us a better perspective on how to move forward. I would definitely recommend carrying out a project with the team at the National Innovation Centre for Data (NICD) to all companies, especially those that have a specific R&D with a limited in-house team.” 

Rojin Yarahmadi, Co-founder and CEO, Polybox


With thanks to the North of Tyne Combined Authority Digital Growth and Innovation Programme (NTCA Digital) for funding this project.

To find out more about Polybox, visit their website.

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