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Prisma, an art filter app launched by a Russian programmer, Alexey Moiseenkov, is leading Apple’s App Store ranking in Russia and several neighboring countries — including Estonia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Moldova, Ukraine and Uzbekistan — ahead of Whatsapp, VK, Instagram, Viber, Aliexpress and other traditional leaders in the region. The app has been number one in these countries every day since June 20 (just a week after launch) according to AppAnnie data reviewed by East-West Digital News. An Android version is scheduled for release in July 2016.

Prisma invites its users to add stunning artistic effects to their photos by combining them with works of art. A photo of your cat can look like a Picasso painting, with the cat as the source for content and Picasso artwork the source for style. The transformation is made instantly.

Chicago redesigned by Prisma

A Chicago view redesigned by the Prisma app. (Photo credit: EWDN)

Screen Shot 2016-06-27 at 13.56.47

Even Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev has started using Prisma on his Instagram account.

To create such images, Prisma’s algorithm uses convolutional neural networks. The approach is not new: it is roughly the same as those of, based in Germany, and Ostagram, a Russian project created by Sergey Morugin.

The key differences lie in speed and availability for the mobile format, Moiseenkov told East-West Digital News. “That really matters because you get the result right here, right now. You can capture every moment in just a few seconds — and this right in your pocket.”

When asked why Prisma hasn’t won traction beyond Russian-speaking countries thus far, Moiseenkov said: “I think because it’s our pet market. We didn’t do any marketing or PR activity here. It just went viral. I believe it will be the same in other countries but a little bit later. Of course we have some cool features ready to match cultural fit.”

Moiseenkov adds that “there are a lot of ways to monetize the app while keeping it free for users.”

A new acquisition target for Silicon Valley giants?

Prisma’s success on the App Store has been enough to trigger Group, a leading LSE-listed Russian Internet group, to invest in the project, with participation from Gagarin Capital, a California-based fund with Russian roots, and XBT, an international Internet hosting company.

Moiseenkov was product manager at Group before he launched Prisma. He declined to disclose any details about this previous occupation. Group’s investment went through, its Silicon Valley-based subsidiary launched in 2013. The details of the deal, announced last week, have not been disclosed, but Russian business daily Vedomosti heard from unnamed sources that the range of Group’s investment was comprised between $1 million and $2 million in exchange for a 10 to 25% stake.

“Artificial intelligence and neural networks will bring a lot of change in all types of media content and we are happy to support such startups. We will continue to invest in this perspective trend further,” said Dmitry Grishin, Chairman of the Board of Mail.Ru Group.

Gagarin Capital has not been involved in the Prisma deal by chance. Co-founded by Nicholas Davydov, a prominent Russian VC who now lives in Silicon Valley, Gagarin Capital had backed Masquerade last year. This Belorussian startup had developed a filtering app for selfies before being acquired, in March 2016, by Facebook.

Mobile photo and video apps started gaining traction with the acquisition of Looksery, a startup with Ukrainian roots, by Snapchat, in September 2015. Snapchat reportedly had spent $150 million to enable its users to have fun with a variety of face effects while taking selfies.

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