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Network security idea wins biz plan contest

Portable biometric authentication solutions are expected to replace memorized passwords.


Swiss university students who came up with an innovative security solution to authorize access to computer networks are the winners of the Venture 2002 business plan competition.

The team comprised researchers and professors from Bern's University of Applied Science and the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne who will share the 60,000 franc first prize for their project called Cod-IT.

Cod-IT is a solution to secure access to networks, computers, and Internet applications, such as homebanking. It includes the software, or a "challenge-response protocol" that interacts with a credit-card-sized smartcard containing an optical sensor that reads information from the display of the user's terminal and vice versa. It acts as a password generator giving the holder of the card a new password each time they access the system.

Instead of typing in a password, users hold their smart card against the screen of the terminal, get a new password and then enter it to gain access.

The inventors say that their smartcard can be customized with a biometric identification module, such as, a fingerprint sensor.

Should the winning team decide to form a startup company, it won't be an easy ride. The experience of other Swiss startups already active in the biometrics market, such as A4Vision, which makes a facial identification solution and Acter AG, which makes a number of biometric identification and authorization solutions that improve greatly upon the password system we are used to.

"The biometric market is not easy for startups because profitable market segments, like government, police, military, border control, are served by large established companies," points out Beat Frei, CEO of Acter AG.

Nevertheless, the availability of cheap sensors, such as those used in fingerprint biometry, as well as the emergence industry standards, points out Frei, is expanding the market for biometrics creating opportunities for new players.

The general notion is that eventually we will no longer be using memorized passwords to access our various accounts and networks. They will be completely replaced with some kind of physical identification and authorization systems within ten years time.

Two other projects took top honors, receiving 30,000 and 20,000 respectively. These two teams have already formed companies and are approaching venture capitalists for funding. Athelas, a Universtiy of Geneva research team, won for its plans to commercialize an anti-bacterial therapy.

Suriasis, also from the Universtiy of Geneva and the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, won third prize for its advanced surface technology for implants and medical devices.

Business plan contest grows

The Venture business plan competition was established by the Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich and McKinsey and Company. This was its third event in six years.

It has grown in popularity over the years. In January, 207 teams, which is 70 percent more teams than in 2000. Each winning team had to develop a business plan subsequently judged by a jury consisting of members of the business community and venture capitalists.

It is interesting to note that all the winning teams this year emerged from the Romandie, or French speaking part of Switzerland, despite the region only representing the number two in terms of number of participants, according to statistics provided by Venture 2002.

The largest number of participants emerge from the German-speaking area of the country, slightly more than 45 percent. Organizers says it was a coincidence that all three winning teams came from Romandie this time.

by Valerie Thompson

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