- Financial advisor Steven Smith is a board member of Audioboom and Blippar.
- Smith was also director of investigations agency Risc, which he said counted Russian oligarchs among its clients.
- He joined the startups’ boards after investments made by property tycoon Nick Candy.
A financial advisor who has connections to the murdered Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko and his alleged killer sits on the boards of two UK startups, Blippar and Audioboom, according to High Court evidence and filings with Companies House.
Steven Smith admitted his links to Russia during a £132 million ongoing High Court battle he is fighting alongside property tycoons Nick and Christian Candy against developer Mark Holyoake. Smith is not accused of any wrongdoing and is linked to the Litvinenko death only through his employer.
Smith’s board positions are one strand of a complex web involving billionaire Nick Candy and his investments in UK tech startups. Business Insider discovered the connections by speaking to former employees of those startups and documents filed with Companies House.
Smith told the High Court last week that he was director of investigations agency Risc between 2006 and 2013. During that time, he said, the agency made payments both to former KGB agent Alexander Litvinenko and the man who is suspected of his murder, former KGB agent Andrey Lugovoy. Both were paid to carry out investigation work for Risc as “a double act,” Smith said, though he didn’t specify exactly what that meant. Litvinenko, a critic of Putin, died in 2006 after being given radioactive Polonium-210 in a cup of tea. Russia has rejected extradition requests for Lugovoy.
Risc was an intelligence firm which conducted private security work and counter-intelligence work for clients such as the Candy brothers, and Russian oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Smith said.
It shut down in 2014. What little is known about its operations has come out through court cases and inquiries, such as the public inquiry into Alexander Litvinenko’s murder. During that inquiry, Risc cofounder Keith Hunter said the company conducted everything from kidnap ransom assessments to “whistle blowing management” for clients.
According to Smith’s evidence, Risc conducted “know your client” checks for the Candy brothers on prospective property buyers.
Smith told the court he had not had dealings with Litvinenko or Lugovoy personally, but was aware of “some form of association” with Risc while he had been a director. He talked about coming into Risc’s offices two days after Litvinenko had been killed to find radioactive warnings all over the boardroom. Litvinenko, he said, had visited Risc on the day he was poisoned.
According to Companies House filings and financial statements, Smith has been on Blippar’s board since February 2016, and a director of Audioboom since August 2016:
But why is this chartered accountant sitting on the boards of any British startups at all?
Smith is a director both of Christian Candy’s CPC Group and Nick Candy’s Candy Ventures SARL. He is also director of a new charity registered in January by Nick Candy and his wife, Holly Valance, the Nick and Holly Foundation.
He joined the boards of Audioboom and Blippar after investments from Candy Ventures SARL. Audioboom CEO Rob Proctor confirmed Smith’s continued involvement with the company. “Steven does indeed sit on our board and is massively helpful in his advice,” he told Business Insider in an email. “Candy Ventures has been a huge supporter and has cornerstoned every funding round that we have completed … Simply put without their support Audioboom would not be the global platform that we are today.”
A spokesman for Blippar only stated that all directors were disclosed in its financial filings.
Nick Candy has backed a collection of UK startups
Smith’s position with Audioboom and Blippar highlights Nick Candy’s growing involvement with British tech startups through Candy Ventures SARL and another investment vehicle, Candy Capital.
These are all the tech and media companies in which Nick Candy is a shareholder:
- Blippar — augmented reality
- Audioboom — audio and podcasting
- Sonr (acquired by Audioboom this year) — social listening
- Crowdmix (renamed Music Media) — music and social media
- Hanzo — web analytics
- Satellite Solutions Worldwide — broadband
- Be Heard — marketing and advertising
A spokeswoman for Candy confirmed his continued involvement with all the companies.
Candy is proactively involved with the companies he has invested in, occasionally with some controversy.
Take the example of London startup Crowdmix.
Nick Candy invested around £8.45 million in the social music company in 2015, but the startup never launched a product. By the following June, CEO Ian Roberts had resigned and the startup collapsed spectacularly into administration.
As part of the Holyoake case, Ian Roberts appeared before the High Court to allege that Candy had effectively “blackmailed” him out of his position as CEO.
Roberts also gave evidence that Candy had lent his own yacht to another investment, Blippar, during the Cannes Lions advertising festival in 2016. Blippar CEO Ambarish Mitra gave Business Insider a tour of the yacht at the time.
Nick Candy also appeared to be on the yacht.
Candy is also proactively involved with Audioboom.
At the same time, Audioboom disclosed that it was considering the acquisition of Sonr News, “primarily for the purpose of obtaining their engineering team and Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Artificial Intelligence algorithms.”
Analysis of financial filings by Business Insider shows that Nick Candy and his associates had already invested in Sonr.
When Candy stepped down from Audioboom’s board in 2016, the company disclosed that he and CEO Rob Proctor held a combined 27.6% of Sonr.
Sonr’s CEO, Amanda Brown, had also previously been Audioboom’s chief operating officer.
The man who incorporated Sonr, accountant Rodger Sargent, had been involved with another of Nick Candy’s ventures, Satellite Solutions Worldwide. He is, according to an interview with The Independent, a specialist in making money from shell companies. Both Satellite Solutions Worldwide and Audioboom started life as shells. Shell companies are entities without active business operations or assets. In the case of Audioboom, its reverse takeover of a shell allowed the company to go public.
Another associate of Nick Candy’s, Lucian Simovici, had been appointed to Sonr’s board earlier in 2016, according to a Companies House filing. Simovici has sat on the boards of several other Candy-linked companies.
Audioboom CEO Rob Proctor was also listed in 2015 as a shareholder in Satellite Solutions Worldwide. It isn’t clear whether he remains a shareholder.
In January this year, Audioboom completed the acquisition of Sonr for approximately £1.42 million, according to a company statement. At the same time, it issued a £1 million convertible loan note to Candy Ventures SARL, “to support the working capital requirements of the combined Audioboom group and Sonr businesses.”
All of the information has been openly disclosed in each company’s financial filings. CEO Rob Proctor described the deal as “fully transparent”.
Nick Candy seems mostly interested in social media
Candy’s investments in Sonr, Blippar, Audioboom, and Crowdmix all reflect a particular interest in social media.
Satellite Worldwide Solutions is the only high-tech investment on the list, as a provider of high-speed satellite broadband. In 2015, Candy also made an investment in web archiving and analytics company Hanzo Archives through Candy Ventures SARL, resulting in Steven Smith and Lucian Simovici joining the company’s board.
Elsewhere, Candy has maintained an interest in advertising. He once worked at advertising agencies JWT and Dentsu, according to a Times profile. He remains a shareholder of the Be Heard advertising group after his shell group, Mithril Capital Management, acquired the Agenda 21 ad agency in 2015.
During the ongoing High Court trial, Candy also referenced investments in biotech and sports. Business Insider was unable to discover such investments.
From his court evidence last week, it appears he would like to move away from property, where he originally made his millions with brother Christian, and further into tech investment.
He said: “[If] you look today, what is Christian doing? He’s still building. What am I doing? I am investing in tech, biotech, sports, media, telecommunications.”