Tech start-up of the week: Sensipass

8 Dec 2014

Michael Hill, co-founder, Sensipass

Our tech start-up of the week this week is Sensipass, a company that relocated from the US to Cork and hopes to replace passwords with biometric technology.

As anyone who is aware of Sony Pictures’ travails this past while would agree, passwords can be a messy business – especially when you put all your passwords in an unencrypted folder called ‘Passwords.’

But even for the very savvy, remembering a litany of passwords for a variety of services is a nightmare that hopefully a new start-up may solve.

“The IT industry has been faced with a serious challenge: passwords,” said Michael Hill, co-founder of Sensipass.

“Making them more secure means making them more complex, but then they become less usable.”

Sensipass is working to solve the industry’s problem by replacing passwords with a new way to deploy biometrics: creating an interactive prompt using biometric images.

Co-founded by two Americans, Michael Hill and Tom Ruddy, Sensipass began life in the US but the attractiveness of Ireland’s ecosystem for start-ups convinced them to migrate, with Sensipass now operating its global base from Cork.

“Sensipass is capable of solving multiple problems involving keyboard languages, hearing and visual impairments and the many problems associated with alphanumeric passwords, such as theft and management costs,” Hill explained.

The market

Sensipass’ market is any company whose employees or customers require a secure, convenient and easy way to access their digital stuff.

“If you take a minute to think about all the companies, services and different applications with which you interact on a daily and weekly basis that require a password or some type of authentication process, from logging into your computer to accessing mobile devices, the size of the market is almost never ending,” Hill said.

“For instance, people log into their work computer around five times a day. It costs companies €30-€40 every time a staff member contacts the IT helpdesk to reset a password.”

“Sensipass is currently being configured for identity management, m-commerce, healthcare, and education.

“The size of the opportunity is directly proportionate to the size of the problem. There are 2.8bn computer users in the world – what if they never had to remember or forget a password again?

“For instance, in terms of a licensing revenue model or revenue model, we are targeting the use of Sensipass’ technology to companies who in turn are getting their customers or employees to use it, including mobile biometric companies, mobile device manufactures, security and authentication companies and global network providers.”

The founders

“A passion for our unified vision to replace passwords is the strongest driver behind our global team,” Hill said.

Coming from backgrounds in risk management and global strategy, the Sensipass founders have more than a decade of experience in the field of identity and access management.

From these constructs, Sensipass has developed several mobile and cloud-based applications to solve security and usability challenges related to accessibility, ID theft, mCommerce security and enterprise BYOD policies.

Responsible for leadership behind the innovation, development and growth of Sensipass and its solutions, Hill has 25 years of experience in risk management, tech transfer and corporate leadership.

He previously provided product management services for government and private firms, which typically involved the development of early stage technologies. During this period, he developed and maintained global strategic partnerships in security/defence, energy and utilities, life sciences, and water management while organising and leading global teams.

Thomas Ruddy, co-founder at Sensipass Ltd, applied for a patent in 2001 and with Hill and coder Roman Sirota later filed patent applications for several more non-alphanumeric authentication methods to support their mission. 

The idea for the company began with Ruddy’s personal battle with dyslexia. He surmised that by eliminating problematic letters and numbers, the logical alternative involved images and sounds, and more usable authentication could be developed. 

Ruddy is always seeking to collaborate with strategic partners in industry, academia and special interest groups to develop solutions for the blind and others challenged by access issues.

The technology

Sensipass offers a three-factor authentication solution that can be deployed as an authentication solution on smartphones, tablets or computers. 

It solves the password problem with better security and usability by replacing the letters and numbers in passwords with simple sensory prompts and responses.

No passwords, no PIN codes, three-factor authentication in three seconds.

“Our current product creates a prompt using any biometric technology, and with a simple and fast private interaction with it, offers three-factor authentication without the need for usernames, passwords or PIN codes. Our patent-pending authentication platform can be used for a wide variety of applications, from access control to mobile wallet authentication. Sensipass can even integrate with your existing authentication server or native apps.

“Sensipass custom configures solutions based on user abilities and hardware capabilities/constraints. At the heart of our Sensipass technology is our unique and expert processing of multi-sensory interactions. Our custom solutions development can design and deploy a Sensipass system to optimise the most usable and secure configuration for your use case.”

A new level of digital security

“The ultimate goal for Sensipass is to have our programme used as the authentication procedure for everything that requires a password,” Hill said.

“However, I am not sure we will ever get to this point, as reports have shown that the number of times we require a password is constantly expanding.

“Sensipass’ mission is to offer consumers a new level of digital security that is more secure, memorable, and simple to use. Audible, visual, or touch-based prompts and responses are customised based upon user limitations and hardware constraints. They envision this as a global platform technology that will replace cumbersome alphanumeric passwords potentially anywhere there is a need for secure identity management.”

Why lean won’t make you go hungry

In the past 18 months, Sensipass has established its global headquarters in Cork and last year it secured investment from SOSventures.

“We followed up this success by securing investment from Enterprise Ireland’s Competitive Start Fund, which identifies companies that have the capability to succeed globally. This support has helped us to continue to grow and forge new and exciting commercial partnerships.”

One of the advantages Hill and Ruddy have discovered about starting up in Ireland is the ability to reach a wide range of people in their target market without having to leave Ireland.

“We have also been able to leverage several support programmes that have helped us engage with the great technical talent here in Ireland.”

Hill’s advice for other start-ups in Ireland right now is to try and stay as lean as possible.

“This can be extremely difficult at times and I think some people confuse a start-up business with a lifestyle choice.

“You must at all times focus on your product, invest in the right R&D and make sure that you have great advisers who are experts in their field.

“Most importantly, fuel that focus with your passion for making real the vision that inspired you to take the leap of fate in the first place, then lean won’t make you feel so hungry.”

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