Ten startups from Eindhoven have been honoured with the Gerard and Anton Award 2016. The jury of the awards thinks these ten have all it takes to follow the footsteps of Gerard and Anton Philips who, 125 years ago, formed the first truly successful startup in the region. Every day we highlight one of those startups. Today: ZENS.
Thanks to GenKey, more than 110 million people in Africa have received an identity during the last five years. The Philips spinoff uses biometric data to ensure that people can go to the polls can without making the local government worry about double voting. For the top 10 startups to watch, E52 visits GenKey at their office on the High Tech Campus.
For a working democracy a functioning bureaucracy is indispensable. GenKey ensures that people in developing countries have a voice. A surprising application of technology.
“Within one second, one billion fingerprints are compared with each other”, says Michiel van der Veen. He has been involved in Genkey from 2008 (then still Priv-ID), today he is CEO of the Dutch company.
Upon entry team members sit in a Skype meeting with an employee abroad. “You’re looking healthy!” Says van der Veen waving to the screen that displays a view of the employee on the other side of the world. “We have offices in the US and Ghana, but our aim is to have an office in every major country in Africa within five years.” Genkey focuses on the so-called emerging markets, the developing countries. “In Africa, over 1.5 billion people have no legal identity. They have no passport, no birth certificate, nothing. Without identity – a proof of who you are – it is difficult to be entitled to care, or to find work. By registering these people we help them.”
Genkey registers every person by scanning fingerprints. These prints are linked to a person in a database. To prevent fraud and to protect the privacy, individual data and fingerprints are stored separately from each other. Also double fingerprints are immediately filtered out of the system, which is called deduplication.
“The aim of Genkey is to help everyone in Africa to an identity. Doing this, we contribute to a stable democracy, because people can no longer impersonate someone else or go voting twice. We also improve health care by preventing fraud and helping to get it to the right people. The UN is investing a lot of money in this. This organisation wants to get a better world with the Sustainable Development Goals, which are agreements to reduce poverty and include more minorities to participate in society. It’s nice to run a business while making the world a better place.”
How did it all begin?
Priv-ID started as a Philips spin-off in 2008. “Scans of fingerprints were still saved as a JPEG file back then. You can imagine how much space and processing power this all cost. We came up with something new. What if you could filter all the information from that picture and turn it into a binary code? Compare it to a CD: sound is converted to a long list of ones and zeros. When someone puts a finger on a scanner, each print is always subtly different. The trick is to derive a stable display out of it. This allows us to compare fingerprints very fast. At Priv-ID – and later Genkey – we developed this process further and further, at this moment we have more than 10 patent families.”
At that time Africa was not yet in sight, Priv-ID focused on payments. Van der Veen calls it a challenging period. He takes his smartphone and puts his finger on the integrated fingerprint sensor. “Today, you find them in any smartphone, but back then it was still rare. The technology was there, but not visible enough for the big breakthrough.”
Van der Veen sits back and crosses his arms. “In 2011, five years ago, we merged with our competitor Genkey. They were already in Africa, that’s when we changed our whole strategy. The new Genkey has chosen to focus entirely on Africa, because you cannot do two things at a time. Focus is important. That was a decisive time.”
Offices in Africa and America, why are you still in Eindhoven?
“This is where it all began, of course, at Philips. The advanced technical know-how at the High Tech Campus is of great importance. If you want to attract high-tech talent, this is the place.”