Experts from Spotify, Echo Nest launch a new startup focused on personalization and privacy

Echo Nest was once a top name in music recommendations. The startup was acquired by Spotify in 2014, and since then its technology has been leveraged into some wildly popular personalized playlists for that streaming service. Now, a former Echo Nest exec has flown the Spotify coop and is striking out with a new approach to personalized discovery.

The result is Canopy, a content discovery startup that promises personalization with privacy across any type of online content. Most tailored recommendation engines create a store of biographical and behavioral data about each user, but Canopy makes its suggestions anonymously and leaves all that data on the listener’s device. For any listeners who want to protect as much of their information as possible, or who are angry about mismanagement of personal data at other digital companies, it’s a very appealing pitch.

The company is led by founder and CEO Brian Whitman, who was Echo Nest’s co-founder and CTO as well as a driving force behind Spotify’s Discovery Weekly playlists. He told TechCrunch that personalization algorithms have become a massively powerful store of information owned by tech companies. “All your information goes to their servers,” he said. “All this data is now being used against people.”

Canopy’s Head of Product Strategy Annika Goldman, who was a director of music publishing at Spotify, shared some details about what happens under the hood for recommendations to be separated from specifics of personal data. “Take Spotify for example. You listen to a song. It knows where you listened to that, it knows how long you listened to it, it knows what you did next — all this stuff they don’t need to know to make music recommendations,” she explained. “We condense and summarize all that information and send it as a single vector — effectively, a summary of things you might like and we make it impossible to reverse engineer the vector to understand the data behind it.”

While the team’s roots are in music, the technology has much broader applications. Canopy plans to create a proof of concept app demonstrating the technology with suggestions for long-form articles and podcasts. Canopy recently received a seed round of $4.5 million led by Matrix Partners to continue its work.

Anna Washenko