iKey reveals biometric vision for safety and health on smartphones

11 Mar 2019

Dr Kate Coleman. Image: iKey

Our Start-up of the Week is iKey, a company that has developed a biometric technology that can verify a child’s age and control access to the internet as well as spotting potential eye disease.

“iKey is a new way to use a photo of the inside of the eye on a mobile phone. It is a new biometric way to distinguish between an adult and a child for internet safety, and it is a way to detect glaucoma – the most common cause of needless blindness globally,” explained Dr Kate Coleman, iKey founder and CEO.

The newly developed and patented technology employs a suite of algorithms assessing a coloured retinal photograph of the optic nerve head at the rear of the eye to distinguish between a child under the age of 16 and an adult.

‘We want to develop cybersecure technology to validate the presence of a child versus an adult on the internet’

The optic nerve head allows blood supply to the eye to pass through it. iKey’s technology describes the relationship between these blood vessels and automatically compares their pattern with those of more developed eyeballs aged 16 years and over.

“A retinal camera takes a photo of the nerve inside the eye and we use algorithms generated with computer vision and machine learning to give an automatic comment on age, identity and glaucoma.”

The market

“iKey is targeting the global mobile phone, tablet and PC markets,” Coleman explained.

“We are interested in disrupting how global health is delivered, particularly in the developing world. We want our first range of products to empower the mobile phone user to screen for preventable disease.”

More than 4.5m people globally suffer from glaucoma blindness, according to the World Health Organization, and it is particularly rife in Africa.

The founder

Woman with blonde hair and beige jacket stands beside a computer screen while a young student has her eyes scanned.

Dr Kate Coleman. Image: iKey

iKey was invented by Coleman, a former consultant ophthalmologist and eye surgeon at Blackrock Clinic and Mount Carmel Hospital in Dublin. Prior to that she was a lecturer in ophthalmology for University College Dublin (UCD) at the Mater Hospital. Coleman is also the founder of Right to Sight, an international social enterprise combating preventable blindness in eight countries in Africa. She is a leading expert in the use of botulinum toxin in oculoplastic conditions, writing internationally recognised textbooks on the subject.

Coleman was recently awarded a Leadership Medal by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland in honour of her work as founder of Right to Sight to eliminate preventable blindness in developing countries.

“I am an eye surgeon with an interest in technology to address global health issues, especially needless blindness,” Coleman explained. “From my experience with eye care delivery in Africa over the last decade, I believe we can develop solutions to solve needless blindness.”

The technology

Coleman said: “The easiest part of the inside of the eye to photograph is the small pale optic nerve head. We use a specialist non-mydriatic camera to take a coloured photo of the optic nerve head without eye drops.

“The camera captures the optic disc image, which is enrolled into our system and will thereafter verify the optic nerve owner. Failure to verify will alert the owner to change or disease.”

iKey has three different algorithm development routes to:

  • verify/identify the owner (biometric)
  • provide the probability of having glaucoma and warn the owner to get an expert eye examination to prevent sight loss
  • verify the owner as an adult or a child

Coleman said that iKey has two separate goals. “First, disruption of global eye care delivery at the primary stage by using the mobile phone to automatically screen the people most likely to have glaucoma, the silent thief of sight and the most common cause of preventable blindness in the world. We want to do so without the need for a medical visit by making the screening widely available. This will also free up highly trained human resources to manage the more challenging aspects of glaucoma and to handle the greatly increased referrals from iKey screening.

“Second, we want to develop cybersecure technology to validate the presence of a child versus an adult on the internet.”

Prototyping and patenting

Coleman said that the start-up has already developed strong prototypes and will be moving offices shortly to NovaUCD to further product development with Dr Catherine Mooney, assistant professor at UCD’s School of Computer Science, alongside her team of researchers.

“We continue to collaborate with ophthalmic experts, including Prof David Keegan, UCD professor of ophthalmology, and the Mater Vision Institute, to research our algorithms and eye disease detection capabilities.

“We are analysing data from schoolchildren for our cybersecurity programme and recently launched a pilot study with St Andrew’s College in Booterstown, Co Dublin.

“We are being advised by Prof Mary Aiken, cyberpsychologist, who is very proactive in the global child protection space and is a driving inspiration behind our cybersecurity programme. We will also be engaging with other interested schools and student bodies.”

Coleman said that the route from idea to prototype to patent has been far from smooth. “We had some difficulty initially in persuading people that the idea was unique and original. Several agencies and investors said ‘it’s all been done before’. But thanks to a couple of wise investors who spotted the opportunity, we have developed prototypes and patented our technology.”

She describes the Irish start-up scene as exciting and full of potential but also at times “full of sharks”.

Her advice to fellow founders in Europe is to be thrifty and protect intellectual property (IP). “Prior to revenue generation, you need to manage your cash very carefully and wisely. For a self-starter, legal and other expert expenses can be high, and so there may be a temptation to skimp in these areas. We are building a team of expert advisers and it is important to listen to their advice.

“So we hired top IP lawyers and a leading international patent firm [FRKelly] to protect our IP and technology. While it is important to manage cash, it is also vital to invest in essential areas.”

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John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years