Face first

Growing Houston tech company using facial recognition for event security

Zenus Biometrics uses its facial recognition software to provide seamless check in at events around the world. Courtesy of Zenus Biometrics

Long, inefficient check-in lines at events or conferences could be a thing of the past with the technology from a Houston company.

Zenus Biometrics, is changing the game of event registration and security through facial recognition.

"Over the last 12 months, we've done more than 50 events all over the world," says co-founder Panos Moutafis. "And for the most part, what we're hearing from these planners is that this is a very new technology and they want to be at the forefront of it."

The software system overlays on already-existing ticketing and registration platforms for event hosting companies. During the registration process, attendees are prompted to either take a selfie or upload an existing headshot. Those who are leery of the process or simply don't want to participate can easily opt out.

Zenus' programming can take a group photo, select all the faces in it and prompt the attendee to select himself. It will also advise whether an image is too blurry for use and suggest uploading another image instead. Once participants arrive at the conference, they approach a camera at check-in. The software recognizes their faces and pops up a menu that asks them to confirm their identity. The process takes seconds.

"This really allows for controlled access," said Moutafis. "Some people might look to game the system – they might register for themselves and then hand off their conference badge to someone who didn't pay to attend. Zenus allows companies to have more security over attendees."

He said the system can also work to limit access. If a company wants to set up a VIP or secure space, they can upload images of those they wish to allow beyond a certain point into Zenus' platform and anyone who doesn't match the facial recognition will be turned away.

The pioneering company operates from a headquarters in Houston's EaDo, and has clients around the globe. Back in November, it took home the prestigious Tech Award at IBTM World in Barcelona, one of the world's leading conferences for the meetings and event industries.

Moutafis said that in addition to being a leading-edge service provider, Zenus balances privacy with innovation. The company doesn't record the emails, contact information or credit cards for conference attendees using the facial recognition platform — only the uploaded images. And those are deleted days after the conference ends. The opt-in feature means that anyone who might feel skittish about the technology doesn't need to use it, and traditional check-in methods will be available onsite for them.

Over the next year, Zenus is perfecting and rolling out a new high-resolution camera that can be mounted in event rooms that will count the faces of those in the meeting or seminar. It's designed to provide a layer of analytics for event planners, capturing how many people attended the session. It can also record their expressions and provide data that can be used to determined how well the session was liked by the audience.

"We just added two more people to our team, so we have a staff of about seven now," he said. "We also work with a team of consultants. Here in Houston, our headquarters has a vibrant, cool feel to it. We're growing and it's exciting."

Born in Greece, Moutafis came to Houston in 2011 to work on his Ph.D. in computer science at the University of Houston. Armed with a B.A. in statistics, he was seeking a way to combine his analytical background with developing algorithms in artificial intelligence. It turned out that the lab he was attached to at UH was focused on facial recognition software.

"That was a different kind of problem to me, and I like a challenge," he says. "And I was attracted to the idea of using facial recognition as a security measure. No matter where you go, whether it's the bank or using a credit card for a purchase in some places, you have to verify your ID. Facial recognition is one of the most frictionless ways to do this."

In 2015, his last year of doctoral studies, he received an National Science Foundation grant that gave him funding to build a team and research what would become Zenus. He also received mentorship and advising about whether he had a viable idea and how to bring it to the marketplace. The following year, he massaged his concept, changed its logo and name, and Zenus was born.

Cognite is opening two offices in Texas. Getty Images

When considering entering the United States market, Francois Laborie, general manager of Cognite North Americas, of course considered some of the obvious cities for a regional headquarters.

"Initially, when we talked about the US, people assumed Silicon Valley or Boston, because we are a traditional software company," Laborie says. "But we really didn't consider too long because the customers we work with require a pretty deep understanding of industry."

The Norway-based company decided to bet on the energy capital of the world and has announced future offices in Houston as well as Austin — both to open by this summer. This will be Cognite's first expansion outside of Northern Europe. The company makes data software for industrial businesses — oil and gas being a huge focus, as is engineering, equipment manufacturing, shipping, and more.

"The industrial world is very siloed and closed, and we are changing a lot of things in that world," Laborie says. "In the digital world, data and information only becomes valuable as you share it. We are all about liberating data, contextualizing it, and then drawing value out of it."

Laborie says the Houston office will be the company's energy hub — both current and prospective clients of Cognite have pressences in town. Meanwhile, Austin will be the tech hub, since the city has a large tech talent pool. Currently, Austin is on the path to be the U.S. headquarters, but nothing is set in stone at the moment, Laborie says.

Cognite, which expects around 50 employees (both new hires and relocations) split between the two locations, already has strategic Houston partnerships in place. Cognite will operate out of Station Houston and even has an internship program and partnership with Rice University. Overall, Laborie says the reception of the city has been positive.

"Houston went above and beyond," Laborie says. "The relationship with Rice has been very interesting because they are working closely with the Houston municipality to transform this image of Houston to get a stronger driver on innovation with the Innovation District, which spoke very loudly to us."

These partnerships are a crucial party of the company, Laborie says, and Cognite plans to work within Houston's innovation ecosystem to continue to push the envelope on innovative technologies.

"We have partnerships with large corporations, but we also see the importance to work with smaller companies to drive innovation — even if they aren't directly related," Laborie says.