Biometrics startup secures its survival

Acter's identification systems are used during the construction of new tunnels through the Alps. Acter

A Swiss university spinoff, Acter AG, is using simple radio technology to make tunnel and mining engineering work a bit safer.

This content was published on January 13, 2005 - 12:01

Its special badges allow companies to keep track of workers as they move in and out of hazardous construction sites.

When mining engineers and construction workers enter the massive Alptransit construction site at Sedrun, ready to drill yet another tunnel through the Swiss Alps, every one of them is logged into a central a computer via a long range radio signal, embedded in a badge they wear at all times.

As they move one pre-defined zone to another, entry and exit is logged. In the case of a disaster, rescue workers will be able to know the wearers exact location within the massive construction project by viewing a computer display.

Academic spinoff

The system was designed by a tiny startup called Acter AG in Zurich, which won the contract after the construction company, Batigroup AG of Basel, spent two years trying to get a solution it bought from an American company to work.

Acter's system was up and running in three months.

This application is a long way from the vision Acter's founders had when they established the company as a spinoff of Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology back in 1999.

At the time, it planned to replace computer and online passwords with a credit-card sized, short-range radio device containing a fingerprint reader.

But as is the case with many research prototypes, it was too early on the market. However, unlike many startups that often languish in R&D mode or go out of business, Acter adapted to the market.

It listened to customers, found out how its know-how its biometrics and wireless technology could be used to solve today's problems, and took action.

Business units

Acter now has contracts with some of Switzerland's largest firms, an important step before growing internationally.

"We took a look at our technology and created two business units, one to deliver engineering service based on our radio communications know-how, and the other to commercialise the security-enabling biometrics intellectual property," said Acter CEO Beat Frei.

"There is a market today for biometrics, but it is not where we originally thought it was. The market is mainly high security physical access to places like nuclear power plants, bank vaults, or special situations like the Alptransit project," explained Frei.

Its first customers to use fingerprints instead of keys or passwords are Swiss mid-sized firms, such as Bixi Systems of Mels, or Alltronic AG in Basel.

These firms integrate Acter's fingerprint sensor and software into systems that enable fingerprint-based user authentification instead of keys, codes and passwords to open doors.

Partnerships

On the wireless side, Acter developed a system for Wahlern-based Kaba Gilgen AG that lets workers program electronic sliding doors. The Sedrun employee tracking solution for Batigroup falls into this business area too.

Acter has achieved these contract wins without advertising or promotion, with customers spreading the word about the tiny five-man company. "We wanted to concentrate first on winning some reference customers and doing a good job for them, before thinking about expanding into other markets," explained Frei.

To grow internationally, Acter has begun to develop sales via reseller or licensing partnerships.

It has signed a few deals, one with Binningen-based Synlogic AG for a password generation and authentification system and with Schamburg, Ill Motorola for a chip-based fingerprint sensor solution, but neither of these is generating significant sales for the firm yet.

Frei says such deals have a longer cycle, but he is confident of future income from them.

by Valerie Thompson

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