Part V: Skyrora
- The Scottish space company Skyrora Limited may be funded, at least in part, by the predatory dating websites Snopes reported on in 2020, as well as the scam operations discussed in Parts II and III of this series.
- As U.S regulators began to scrutinize Polyakov's ownership of Firefly Aerospace, Polyakov quietly became the majority shareholder owner of a Hong Kong holding company named Digitroom Holding, funding, at least in part, Skyrora's parent company.
- Skyrora's founder, Volodymyr Levykin, has been a key business partner of Polyakov since 2001. He has held executive positions at Cupid plc, Together Networks, and Noosphere Ventures itself.
- Using data provided by the Slovenian Ministry of Finance, Snopes can document the flow of well over $1 million from shell companies associated with Together Networks -- including from the companies that charge people for recurring subscriptions -- to shell companies located at the same address as Digitroom Holding.
- The individuals listed as the owners of the companies that transferred money to these Hong Kong entities, as well as an individual listed as the owner of one of those Hong Kong companies, have ties to either Together Networks or Noosphere Ventures.
"Non-space subsidiaries have demonstrated significantly improved revenue performance."— Skyrora Ventures, 2020 Annual Financial Report
Snopes' 2020 investigation connected Noosphere Ventures — the entity through which Max Polyakov once held majority ownership of the U.S. aerospace company Firefly Aerospace — to over 100 predatory dating websites. The suggestion apparently touched a nerve. "Noosphere Ventures does not hold any shareholdings in any dating business," a spokesperson wrote in a response to that story, "therefore the suggestion that Firefly Aerospace is funded by dating business activity is impossible."
Polyakov no longer has anything to do with Firefly Aerospace. The U.S. government, reportedly citing national security concerns, forced him to give up his ownership in early 2022. Prior to the sale of his interest in that aerospace company, however, he quietly became an apparently significant investor in the Scottish aerospace company Skyrora Limited. This company, Snopes reveals, is unequivocally "funded by dating business activity," if not by the broader scam empire discussed in the preceding parts of this series
Skyrora was founded in June 2017 by a veteran of Polyakov's internet dating businesses, Volodymyr Levykin. Levykin has worked alongside Polyakov since the early 2000s. He later held leadership roles at the Polyakov co-owned online dating company Cupid plc and its successor, Together Networks, a brand composed mostly of those same former Cupid plc websites.
Levykin served as Cupid's chief operating officer, according to his LinkedIn page, until a few months before a series of investigations into its business practices destroyed the company's share value. Prior to or around the time of those investigations, Levykin and Polyakov both left Scotland and moved to Silicon Valley, where Polyakov founded his venture capital firm Noosphere Ventures in early 2013.
At Noosphere, Levykin was the "scientific officer in the area of innovation paradigm." Concurrently, he was also president of an apparent U.S. subsidiary of Together Networks named Together Networks USA, which operated out of that same Noosphere office. In 2017, however, Levykin apparently charted a new course. He left Polyakov behind in California and returned to Scotland to found the aerospace company Skyrora Limited.
Skyrora, whose "vision is to meet the growing demand for small satellite launch vehicles by combining proven technology with modern-day innovation in order to provide cost-effective and responsive access to space," recently applied for the licenses that, if approved, would allow them to be in contention to perform the first vertical rocket launch from U.K. soil. In June, the company hired a former vice president from Elon Musk's company SpaceX, Lee Rosen, to be Skyrora's COO.
Since its earliest days, Skyrora has been secretive about its funding. "Investment for Skyrora has stemmed from a private group of investors of which I am included," Levykin said in a 2019 interview. Based on Skyrora's own public disclosures, however, there is no question that money derived from online dating websites fund a portion of Skyrora's activities. As it turns out, this may not have been much of a new course for Levykin. Neither Levykin nor Skyrora Ventures responded to our requests for comment.
'New Orbits of Mobile Development'
Skyrora Limited — the rocket launching company — is wholly owned by another U.K. company: Skyrora Ventures. Skyrora Venture's subsidiaries were disclosed publicly on March 7, 2022. Like other aerospace companies, Skyrora's parent owns several space-related subsidiaries important to Skyrora Limited's operation, including companies that make rocket fuel and research and design instruments, or process data.
Unlike most other aerospace operations, however, Skyrora Ventures also has several subsidiaries involved in online dating and/or affiliate marketing.
Orbitonix, archived records suggest, "operated" at least two nearly identical dating websites prior to their apparent disappearance from the internet: HeartyMeets and MatchMeets. These websites were, in turn, owned by a second Skyrora Ventures subsidiary named Blue Trident Holdings. In that 2020 report, Skyrora Ventures described Blue Trident Holding's activity as "professional, scientific, and technical services" and Orbitonix's activity as "new orbits of mobile development."
By the time these subsidiaries were disclosed, HeartyMeets and MatchMeets disappeared from the internet. During these sites' evidently brief existence, however, at least one of them processed credit card charges using the Bulgarian-based entity Aneto Interactive Limited. Aneto, a company discussed in Part III of this series, was also used by more recognized Together Networks brands like Bang Experts, Shagaholic, and Moms Go Wild. Skyrora's subsidiary Orbitonix is, as well, the seller of a iOS mobile dating app named Tappl that does not appear to have been updated more than once.
Another Skyrora subsidiary, Saltire Connect Limited, is behind an affiliate marketing agency named Adromeda that promotes "mainstream" (as opposed to "casual" hook-up) online dating sites and also, increasingly, subscriptions to horoscope providers.
When Skyrora Ventures disclosed the existence of its subsidiary companies, it also explicitly stated that revenue from these non-space ventures offer "additional financial support for developing the core space model."
Digitroom Holding Limited
What about the more infamous and well-promoted Together Network brands that actually do have an internet footprint — could their revenue also contribute to Skyrora Ventures? What about revenue generated as a result of traffic from those sweepstakes campaigns discussed in Part II of this series? Is it possible that funds from these dubious and often publicly criticized ventures have also, at least in part, gone toward Skyrora Ventures?
To answer those questions, one first has to grapple with Skyrora's complex ownership structure, which shields from public view useful details about the individuals and companies that have invested. Skyrora Ventures' most significant shareholder is a largely anonymous limited liability partnership in the U.K. named Blue Trident Capital LLP (not to be confused with the aforementioned Blue Trident Holdings). Levykin owns only one British pound of Skyrora Ventures' £35,000,001 share capital as an individual. The rest is owned by Blue Trident Capital.
Blue Trident Capital is the primary object that obscures public viewing of Skyrora's investors, because we do not know what percentage its members contribute, nor do all members require disclosure. Levykin is one of the disclosed partners in Blue Trident Holdings, and the other is a Hong Kong holding company named Digitroom Holding Limited.
We do not know what percentage of Blue Trident is made up of funds from Digitroom Holding, but we do know several companies or ventures Digitroom is associated with. Crucially, these various holdings match the description of Skyrora Venture's "non-space" businesses as described in their own words, which could indicate Digitroom's share of Blue Trident is significant.
The 2020 subsidiary report claimed that Skyrora Ventures' non-space business model "is based on premium advertising traffic resale through a state-of-the-art SaaS platform that analyses and optimises marketing performance and provides integrated tools that automate core business processes, including traffic distribution, preventing fraudulent transactions etc."
Premium traffic resale refers, broadly, to affiliate marketing. These agencies, in theory, pay people to place ads to generate leads or traffic, and then "resell" the traffic or leads to advertising clients at a higher rate. Several agencies currently or previously in Polyakov's orbit used Together Networks to build email marketing lists.
The "state-of-the-art SaaS platform that analyses and optimises marketing performance" almost certainly refers to a product owned by Digitroom Holding named Profitalizer, which describes itself as "a flexible SaaS platform for advertisers, affiliates and partner networks that analyzes and optimizes your marketing performance."
As far as Snopes can discern, Profitalizer's only publicly identified client is Ads Empire — an affiliate marketing agency staffed by several people formerly employed by other Polyakov companies, and that promotes Together Networks' dating websites, as well as the kinds of sweepstakes contests discussed earlier in this series.
More broadly speaking, Digitroom appears to be a central node in the Polyakov e-commerce and scam apparatus. It shares its address, at present, with the affiliate marketing agency ClickDealer's Hong Kong parent company. It owns a Cyprus-registered company that operates dating websites — like Uniform Dating and Love Again — that were previously associated with the Cupid plc brand. The question, then, is do funds from any of these or other activities make their way to Skyrora?
Transferring large sums of money is challenging even when it involves unequivocally clean money moved for perfectly legal reasons. It is even harder to do so without raising suspicion if that money comes from high-risk industries that have a public history of complaints. According to records obtained by BuzzFeed News and described to Snopes, this is a challenge Polyakov's dating businesses have dealt with for years.
A collection of investigations known as the FinCEN Files, based on a trove of confidential reports obtained by BuzzFeed News, were first published in September 2020 in collaboration with a collection of journalists known as the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ). The documents at the heart of these investigations are primarily "suspicious activity reports" (SARs). Such reports, which are not de facto evidence of wrongdoing, are made by U.S. financial institutions to the United States Financial Crime Enforcement Network (FinCEN).
SARs highlight what are generally described as "suspicious wire transfers and transactions with no apparent economic, business or lawful purpose." As previously reported by the Times of Israel in September 2021, Polyakov and transfers of funds related to his dating businesses are featured in this cache of documents.
Further, Snopes reports here, a previously unreported SAR shows that two companies that had been running out of Noosphere Ventures' (and Together Networks USA's) California office — TN Payments Inc. and UFI Payments Inc. — had SARs filed against them because they appeared to be processing payments for a company that has had "negative reports filed against." These funds, the SAR reported, were then wired "to a bank account which this company holds in Latvia." As a result, these entities lost access to a business checking account at a U.S. bank.
The SARs contained in the FinCEN Files are dated, and mainly deal with the time period in which Polyakov was setting up shop in Silicon Valley prior to his purchase of Firefly Aerospace. But what about Skyrora? Do any records reveal flows of money from an infamous collection of predatory dating websites to a holding company invested in Skyrora Ventures?
By law, any transfer of cash involving the Slovenian financial system that exceeds 15,000 euros and involves "jurisdictions with a higher risk of money laundering and terrorist financing" must be reported, by various financial institutions, to the Slovenian government. These data are then published online on a semi-regular basis — described as "remittances to risky countries."
Snopes reviewed data from 2018, 2019, and 2020. The transfers are "outgoing transactions linked to high-risk third countries," a representative from the Slovenian Ministry of Finance told Snopes by email. Entities appearing in these datasets, like those in the FinCEN Files, are there not necessarily because of suspicions of wrongdoing, the representative told us, but because of where the money was sent.
As Snopes describes in detail here, several shell companies identified in this series as linked to the Polyakov dating empire made substantial use of the Slovenian financial system to transfer cash to at least two business entities registered at the same Hong Kong address, at the time, as the Skyrora funder Digitroom Holding — a similar intermingling of dating and ecommerce capital that existed at Noosphere Ventures during the time the FinCEN SARs were filed.
Both Digitroom-adjacent companies receiving these funds, Laneric Limited and Whitecom Limited, have apparent ties to Noosphere Ventures and/or Skyrora Ventures. For example, the aforementioned Bulgarian billing company Aneto Interactive Limited appears in these records because Aneto is owned by a Slovenian company named Inobite. Inobite, these records reveal, transferred 80,361 euros to Whitecom Limited over a period of time from August to October 2018.
By matching identifying information in Whitecom's filings, including date of birth and address, Snopes was able to tie that company's sole shareholder to an Instagram profile. The nominal owners of multiple companies linked to Noosphere Ventures, including another caught up in the Slovenian records, and two Noosphere-linked individuals identified in Part III of this series, have frequently interacted with that person's posts on Instagram.
Another example of money flowing toward a company sharing an address with Digitroom Holding is the transfer of funds from the Bulgaria-registered Marbore Web Services to the Hong Kong-registered Laneric Limited. Marbore is currently listed as the owner of several websites that — during the time of the transfers — were explicitly connected to Together Networks and highlighted in Snopes' 2020 investigation. These include Mamflirt, Flirty Milfs, Naughty Appetite, Buddy Gays, and Asians Get Naughty. In November and December 2018, Marbore transferred $284,976 and 82,000 euros to a second company at Digitroom Holding's then-address: Laneric Limited.
Snopes could not confidently identify a connection between the beneficial owner of Laneric and either Noosphere or Together Networks, but the conclusion that it could be unrelated to Digitroom Holding or Skyrora Ventures is comparatively improbable. That's because Slovenian records indicate Laneric also received money from a company named Posets Code Limited, which just happens to own the copyright to the dating app Tappl, presently sold by Orbitonix.
Posets Code, just for good measure, is ultimately owned by an individual Snopes tied to Noosphere Ventures, as well. Laneric, Snopes also found, received money from at least one other company in the Slovenian records whose beneficial owner is a current or former employee of Together Networks. Whitecom, the other Digitroom-adjacent company, also received funds from an additional Slovenian shell company whose beneficial owner is linked to Together Networks.
While this is not absolute proof of the transfer of funds from the most overtly scammy corners of Polyakov's dating empire to a space company he appears to be quietly funding, our investigation has not uncovered a more plausible explanation for these myriad connections. Digitroom Holding itself, it bears mentioning, was owned by a former C-level executive of Noosphere Ventures prior to being transferred to Polyakov and Levykin, after the movement of funds described above, in September 2021.
"What's interesting about this is the human connections," Denisse Rudich, a financial crime prevention expert, told Snopes in a phone interview. The fact that these entities have socially connected beneficial owners once employed by the same or related companies suggests it's possible that "there could be an element of collusion happening" between these potentially linked Hong Kong companies, she said.
These five companies, which would theoretically account only for portions of Polyakov's online businesses that involve Slovenian financial institutions, account for the flow of over $1.1 million and over 300,000 euros to Digitroom-adjacent companies. This would, in theory, suggest that Skyrora could potentially be funded, at least in part, by the same dating websites that Noosphere strenuously denied were funding Polyakov's former company Firefly Aerospace.
At the very least, however, we know Skyrora Ventures owns or owned companies that operate mobile dating apps, an affiliate marketing agency promoting online dating, and multiple dating websites, at least one of which used the same entity that processed credit cards for a host of other Together Networks websites.
Polyakov no longer has much to do with the California Noosphere Ventures operation. He moved back to Scotland full time in 2021, and in April 2022 completed the purchase of a 14th-century Scottish castle. "Dr Polyakov highly appreciates the historical heritage of the place, taking its roots from the early 14th century," a Polyakov spokesperson told the Scottish media outlet The Courier.
Super Activists of Honest and Beauty
A common Polyakov defense against allegations of shady business practices is that he has made so much money from selling his companies that the idea he would need to be involved in such day-to-day trickery is laughable. "How many guys do you know who built [a] half-a-billion [dollar] company which (was sold) to Oracle?" he asked a Kyiv Post reporter in 2018 in response to criticism. "How many guys do you know who take a company public? … The natural habit of people is to hate, for various reasons,” he explained.
To be fair, it is true that Polyakov has made substantial sums of money from the capitalization of his former businesses. In addition to profiting from the sale of a large portion of his shares in Cupid plc at their peak value, he has also reportedly made millions through the sale of several other companies.
In 2006, he sold a "consumer search and behavior intelligence" product named HitDynamics. In 2015, he sold a web analytics and optimization product named Maxymiser to Oracle. In 2019, Polyakov sold a mobile gaming company he co-founded, Murka, to the U.S. investment group Blackstone. These deals were worth hundreds of millions of dollars, reportedly.
Such a statement fails as a credible response against the central facts of this series of investigations: Polyakov presently benefits financially in multiple ways from the same two-bit, subscription-trap grift that he has been associated with for over a decade. Polyakov and Noosphere themselves failed to substantially defend against this series' allegations, which we first sent to them on Feb. 18, 2022.
On Sept. 26, via a public relations and brand reputation firm retained by Noosphere, a spokesperson told us that "given the biased and incorrect conclusions based on whatever research you conducted, we do not intend to respond in a substantive way to [Snopes' questions]." She added, without providing a single specific example, that the questions were "replete with innuendo and conjecture, all of which are false."
Noosphere, in these communications, repeatedly challenged Snopes to find evidence of legal wrongdoing tied to Polyakov while simultaneously threatening Snopes with legal action if we suggested any. "We invite you to identify any regulatory action or information from a regulatory entity in any jurisdiction in which his companies operate," the spokesperson wrote to Snopes. "I asked for that in our response to you and you have declined, leading me to conclude that you have no such evidence."
Intended as an insult to our reporting or as some sort of rhetorical victory, this is a revealing statement. Much, if not all, of the activity revealed in our story may well be technically legal. That's not really the point.
For example, it may be perfectly legal to construct a largely illusory e-book subscription service and charge money for it. It may also be legal to use this largely illusory business as the basis for a marketing campaign that collects credit card numbers under the guise of iPhone raffles. It could be perfectly legal to then charge those credit card numbers on a monthly basis under the guise of a subscription plan to illusory businesses whose clients have never heard of them.
The same could be said for Together Networks. It may well be perfectly legal to set up a network of hundreds of effectively identical dating websites, ones that a digital ocean of online complaints suggest are scams, and use them — via seductive or flirty chatbots — to get people to authorize recurring credit card payments. It may well be perfectly legal to use data derived from either online dating or sweepstakes campaigns to build traffic, generate marketing leads, and sell those commodities for profit as well.
Finally, it could be perfectly legal to fund a wealthy man's aspirations of being an aerospace entrepreneur through business practices like this. If so, this would be an indictment of the international systems and laws in place designed to prevent, monitor, or identify such predatory behavior, not an affirmation of Noosphere Ventures' pristine and unimpeachable business ethics.
It is one thing to amass a large amount of wealth through obviously shady or predatory business practices. It's another thing entirely to demand the general public ignore the reality of those facts and instead buy into the notion that the former proprietor of Bang Experts is, as he says on LinkedIn, "creating a new, information-oriented society where information systems serve the whole of humanity."
If you believe that, Snopes has a $1 iPhone to sell you. All we need is your credit card number.