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.

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Building Houston

 
 

Here are five mistakes startup founders should be making as early as possible during their entrepreneurial journey. Graphic by Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

We all have heard "you learn from your mistakes," so, why do a lot of startup blogs warn entrepreneurs of the mistakes they shouldn't make when starting a business, but not very many tell them what mistakes they should be making? Some mistakes teach us more than our successes and some of those mistakes are bound to happen anyway, so why not embrace them?

Ben Wiener, a startup founder and managing partner of a Jerusalem-based micro-fund that invests in early-stage startups, provides a list of five mistakes startup founders should be making as early as possible during their entrepreneurial journey in an OnStartups blog post.

Ben Wiener’s Top  Mistakes When Starting a Business 

1. Get Screwed

"It's inevitable. Anyone – your partner, co-founder, employee, investor, or any other character in your unfolding plot – will mess you over. Someone will break your trust, violate a verbal or even written agreement, cut your compensation, or try to steal your equity or destroy your whole company (or all of the above, if you're me). Someone will do something stupid to scuttle your grand plan."

Wiener said to accept the inevitable. Power struggles are real, and the vision you have, someone else on your team may not see it the same way, causing friction. Prepare yourself for this problem and hope it doesn't cause too much damage.

"Upon reflection, you'll likely find that what enabled your misfortune was something you did or didn't do. The screwer-screwee relationship requires at least two people, and there are two sides to every story. Even if you clearly weren't "at fault" – you encountered a terrible, crooked person who did you in – you still need to ask yourself how you allowed yourself to do business with that person," Wiener said.

2. Seek Revenge

"This is an adjunct to the above mistake. Once bitten, your natural impulse may be to bite back. You've lost something – tangible, emotional, some future upside or all of the above – and you want to deny the perpetrator those same things or at least the satisfaction of having caused you that loss."

Wiener recommends trying this at least once. "I predict that not only won't you be successful, but most likely nothing will happen at all, or worse, it will bounce back at you. You'll just feel immature, cheap and dirty and the lingering recollection of that bad feeling probably will be enough to prevent you from playing the revenge card again," he said.

Beyonce said it best, "always stay gracious, best revenge is your paper." Translation: remain cordial, your success will be the best revenge.

3. Tell People Your Venture is in "Stealth Mode"

"It's natural to want to keep your cards close to your vest. Perhaps you're afraid someone will steal your idea, or you lack confidence that you've developed it well enough to convincingly describe it to others. The tech industry has even provided you the gift of a cool-sounding cover: "Stealth Mode," which makes you sound more like a covert spy shrouded in secrecy than an unsure rookie plagued by insecurity. Saying you're in "Stealth Mode" is almost certainly a mistake, for many reasons. First of all, it can easily be interpreted as either pompousness or insecurity, which is bad for your credibility. You're also signaling that you don't trust that person, creating a negative feeling that will likely persist even after you're able to elaborate later on."

You never know who a potential investor or costumer could be, so don't keep everything a secret. Pique people's curiosity. You may even know a potential investor or costumer personally, so "switch to 'Get Out There' mode" as Wiener recommends.

4. Believe that "If You Build It, They Will Come"

"The popularity of the phrase leads some founders to believe, and predict to investors, that they, too, need only to build their amazing new thingy, and the users will come running until the rest looks like a hockey stick. I can assure you that if you just build "it", "they" will almost certainly not come. In startup theory the "coming" of "they" is called "Market Pull" which almost never happens by itself, even among early adopters. Market Pull needs to follow an intense and iterative period of product design, customer development, Product/Market Fit and hands-on "Technology Push" into the target market, which only if successful begets the glorious Market Pull. You'll have to work hard to make the market notice and care, and probably personally engage your early users individually, and that's fine."

5. "Wiener's Favorite Mistake"

"My favorite founder mistake is not appropriately balancing confidence and humility. There's a yin/yang relationship between the two and as you pilot your rocketship forward, you will occasionally find that you've leaned too hard to one side or the other. As a startup founder you need to have a healthy dose of self-confidence. Ok, maybe an unhealthy dose. An overdose. You need to passionately believe that your solution is The Next Big Thing. But overconfidence can be extremely dangerous, for many reasons. It can be misinterpreted by others as arrogance, which can cause damaging interpersonal consequences. If overconfidence morphs into false confidence, it can cloud your vision or your analysis. A great founder must have just as healthy a dose of humility, an understanding of his or her relatively small place in the world. But being too humble can hold you and your venture back."

Wiener said that balancing your self-confidence and humility is something you will have to do every day. You will need to choose which situations require which trait.

What’s The Big Idea? 

When starting your own company, do you want other entrepreneurs to only tell you about their successes? Or, do you want to know their failures as well and what they learned?

"A good entrepreneur wants to talk about their mistakes as well as their successes, and a good investor wants to hear about those mistake and lessons without penalizing the pitch, Wiener said."

If you had a young child or teen in the early 2000s, maybe you heard Hannah Montana sing "Nobody's Perfect." That mantra always has and will remain true. Wiener said to expect mistakes to happen. Embrace them, and then analyze them "as those lessons learned will become important, lasting building blocks in your personal development and the development of your company."

Don't be afraid to make mistakes when starting a business. It would be weird if you didn't, actually. Learn from them and go succeed.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea. Cory Thaxton, the author of this piece, is the communications coordinator for The Division of Research.

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