Cost-effective identification systems based on biometric information are in demand for developing nations, especially when it comes to voter identification and even providing security for the parents of newborn infants or government conditional cash transfer programmes.
The common link is that such systems don’t require users to write or to memorize a password, but are based on unique characteristics such as fingerprints or facial data. Already, Brazil is a major user of such systems, thanks to heavy investments by leading banks to combat fraud, which has resulted in extraordinary sophistication for its ATM system.
Software driving these systems is the business of Griaule Biometrics, a Campinas-based company that in 2002 emerged from the innovation incubator at the University of Campinas. Griaule’s first breakthrough in 2014 was to successfully deliver a programme to process 23 million voter biometric records held by Brazil’s electoral authority the TSE (Tribunal Superior Eleitoral.)
Now it’s one of several companies in line to execute a much larger government project to equip all Brazilian citizens with a chip-based ID card that will take the place of today’s Registro Geral (RG) identity card sitting in the wallets or purses of almost 200 million citizens.
Griaule is also working on mother-and-baby identification systems for hospitals concerned about the “changeling” phenomenon of baby-swapping or even the theft of newborn infants. This technology, named Agincourt Baby, is part of the company’s Griaule Biometrics Suite. The company clearly hopes to benefit from both federal and state legislation now in process, that would oblige local authorities to record biometric data of newborns.
Voter identification in Brazil kicked off in 2012 with municipal elections in three states. Today, the TSE calculates that 50.4 million voters – around one third of those eligible to vote – already have their biometric data registered. Today, Griaule manages the TSE biometric database and developed the certification software it uses. “Our programme guarantees that every person casting a vote can do so only once,” says Alexandre Creto, a product manager with the company.
Already, the company has sold other data systems to dozens of countries, including Israel, the US and India. Other Brazilian companies that have emerged from the University of Campinas cluster are working on biometric voice identification, and databanks for full-face recognition.
For Griaule, the R$82 million (US$26.3 million) two year contract for the supply of large-scale fingerprint verification systems to the TSE, signed in 2014, was a major breakthrough as it includes a partnership with global data giant Oracle. First emerging from Campinas in 2002 under the leadership of CEO and chief scientists Iron Calil Daher, the company depended for survival on PIPE financing from FAPESP.
PIPE phase One funding included development cash of R$ 263,000 (US$ 84,500) improvement of recognition quality and availability (speedcluster) of Griaule’s Automated Fingerprint Identification System, (AFIS ). The company also received a subsequent grant for digital detection and recognition of the human face (Principal investigator Luís Mariano del Val Cura).
Quickly, this support was vindicated as the company won competitions in the US, Spain and Italy for fingerprint verification systems, and garnered further financial support from picked up further support from FINEP (Brazil’s Federal Innovation Agency).
As a result of the international recognition, Griaule was able to open a sales office in Mountain View, California, in February 2007 and started exporting its services. Griaule now has clients in more than 50 countries including South Africa and India. None of this could have happened without early support from PIPE for innovation and development.
Back in 2005, when it left the university campus the company had annual sales of just R$100,000. This figure jumped to R$12 million in just the first five months of 2014. By 2016 annual sales had risen to R$40 million, and the company now has 40 FTEs. “I think that the company’s growth was very slow, nothing happened overnight, CEO Iron Daher told an interviewer. “Our income rose and fell a few times over the last decade.”
“All this was possible only because, years ago, in 2002, Unicamp gave us an opportunity. That gave us a lot of credibility. Back then, the university did not yet have an incubator. Nor can we forget the support we received, from both FAPESP and Finep,” adds Daher. “If it were not for the two FAPESP Pipe grants, one for fingerprint recognition and one for voice recognition, we would not have reached this point.”
Now, however, the future growth path seems secure: Griaule has an assured market in the public sector, thanks to the Brazilian government’s decision to link the issuance of passports, voter ID cards and State ID cards to fingerprinting.
But it has also ridden the wave of banks’ investment in customer identification, In 2013, Griaule negotiated a global contract to supply its software to the Spanish bank Santander, in addition to providing biometric solutions to the Caixa Econômica Federal, a Brazilian bank that has 30,000 ATMs and another 25,000 point-of-service devices in lottery retailers. The government’s poverty-fighting conditional cash transfer scheme Bolsa Familia, also uses card systems with biometric data.
Griaule is an example of a successful Brazilian tech company starting to play in the big leagues for international contracts also vied for by global giants. Nevertheless, “Griaule is small, but highly specialized in the field,” says Daher. His company’s success is an example of one area where the flow of technological innovations is no longer one-way, from foreign countries to Brazil. “Now, when people talk about large-scale biometric identification systems, Griaule is recognized for its technical expertise.”