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.

Backed by an Austin venture group, Navegate has opened a Houston outpost. Courtesy of Navegate

A growing software company backed by Austin-based Next Coast Ventures has set its eyes on a new office in Houston.

Navegate, a digital supply chain technology and services for the middle market with headquarters in Minneapolis and offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Shanghai, announced its new offices in Houston and Kansas City as well as a the beta version of a new software platform. The company now has 100 employees across its six offices.

"At Navegate we have a concierge-level commitment to fulfilling our clients' needs," says Nathan Dey, CEO of Navegate, in a news release. "By establishing Kansas City and Houston offices, we're expanding our footprint to have physical locations in two critical freight hubs. These locations will provide further leverage for both existing and future Navegate clients in their efforts to build best-in-class supply chains."

James Blodgett will lead the Houston office as the key accounts manager. He has more than 35 years of experience in project cargo, according to the release, and notes how important Houston is as a market considering its connection to the port.

"As a hub for cargo and oversized shipments, I'm excited to leverage our new location to strengthen customer relationships as well as grow Navegate's base for project cargo," says Blodgett in the release.

The company has financial support in Texas already. Next Coast Ventures originally got involved with the company last October when Chicago-based Saltspring Capital led Navegate's financing round. Dey, who was previously managing partner at Saltspring Capital, became CEO and chairman of Navegate as part of the recapitalization.

"Nathan has only been CEO at Navegate for less than a year and he has already done an incredible job of reinvigorating the company's mission to be the industry leader in logistics, strategically growing their global presence and incorporating customer feedback into their platform," says Michael Smerklo, co-founder and managing director of Next Coast Ventures. "Navegate's newly-designed software and commitment to having their experts on the ground in these transportation hubs show their unwavering dedication to their customers — the exact type of hands-on, innovative approach to customer service and product iteration that we strive to invest in."

The company announced that Operations Manager Adam Daugherty will lead the new Kansas City location, and that it will be rolling out a new platform, called Navegate Emerald™. The new user interface is complete with intelligent new shipment tracking and management tools that work with supply chain collaboration. Navegate Emerald has four new applications that allows customization for customers to build their own solutions depending on their needs.

"As we celebrate our 50th year in business, Navegate Emerald has ushered in a renaissance of our technology and our business as a whole," says Dey in the release. "We're thrilled to be able to help add value to our more than 600 clients' processes and transform how they do business through the utilization of these digitally-enabled supply chain tools. The breakthrough business benefits they provide will allow for reduced supply chain costs, better working capital management, improved understanding of capital at risk and more seamless communication with all supply chain constituents.