Creating an eye-capturing business.
By deploying the first proof of concept for the UID project, 4G Identity Solutions became the first company to introduce the iris biometric technology in India.
It took 39-year-old Sreeni Tripuraneni, a well-trained vascular surgeon in the UK, just over two years to completely study the efficacy of the iris technology (the iris is the coloured part of the eye surrounding the pupil), the algorithms for which were patented by John Daugman, professor at the University of Cambridge, back in 1994.Though Tripuraneni embraced the iris biometric technology for patient recognition in the UK a decade ago (in 2001), he now takes pride in the fact that his company – 4G Identity Solutions – is the first to have introduced it closer home by deploying the first proof of concept for the unique identification (UID) project in March 2010.
“Post the completion of my medical informatics course at the University of Bath, I started working on electronic patient records and how to use biometrics to identify a patient brought to an emergency room in a state of shock. My task was Herculean – getting to know the patient, his past medical history and blood group, and start quick treatment in the Golden Hour (the first hour of treatment, in medical terminology). In 2001 I found that iris was one of the most unique biometrics technologies, and since then I have been working on it,” recalls Tripuraneni.
Full of ideas and a fire in his belly, Tripuraneni came back to India in 2003 and started interacting with politicians and bureaucrats on home turf to understand government systems here. He found that governments were having problems in extending distribution of welfare schemes and those below the poverty line (BPL) had no access to state welfare programmes.
Keen to grab a piece of this niche demand, Tripuraneni made his boldest gamble: He set up 4G Identity Solutions (whose tagline says it all – ‘Authentic People, Unique IDs’), and became an exclusive licensee to US-based Iridian Technologies (to whom John Daugman sold his patent) for the Indian market.
“When I decided to come back to India, I thought of bringing the best technology to a country like this, where we have a huge population of BPL people, and where governments spend billions of rupees to eradicate poverty but none of this reaches the target audience. So, I thought the iris technology would help governments streamline their systems,” the chairman and chief executive of 4G says matter-of-factly.
Walking down memory lane, the doctor-turned-entrepreneur says his company made its first deployment to the Andhra Pradesh civil supplies department in 2005, cleaning up 5.6 crore people's irises and a demographic data base of 8.2 crore people, eliminating duplication from the data base.
“The technology helped the AP civil supplies department save more than Rs 1,000 crore per annum through this Rs 30 crore contract awarded to us. This is clearly evident in their budget reduction from 2009 until now. While the budget of the department was Rs 3,500 crore in 2009, it was reduced to Rs 3,000 crore in 2010 and Rs 2,400 crore this year,” Tripuraneni adds.
Flush with the success of the maiden deployment, 4G Identity integrated the iris technology with other programmes of the Andhra Pradesh government, including one to identify the real beneficiaries of Rajiv Gruhakalpa, a housing scheme for the low-income urban population. Then followed a similar project using multiple-biometrics (both iris and fingerprinting) for a UN-funded World Food Programme scheme in Odisha’s Rayagada district.
“Having tasted success with these projects, we had implemented the technology for several states, including the AP Police and the Delhi Home Guards for recruitment. Corporates too have a big problem in identifying prospective employees while recruiting, as some use fake identities for getting employment. Reliance Industries Limited and ADP (in Hyderabad and Pune) are two such stories,” Tripuraneni says, adding that the company has begun a dialogue with other state governments for replicating the implementation of iris technology in their public distribution systems (PDS).
“PDS is important to any state government and officials from Gujarat and Chhattisgarh have already visited our Hyderabad office and looked at our solutions. We are shortly going to close an order in Sikkim for their PDS which covers 600,000 people, the execution period of which is six months. We are also working with the ministry of home affairs for border management.”
For 4G Identity Solutions, the icing on the cake, however, came in the form of the UID in March 2010. The project had begun shaping up and they wanted to see how the biometrics (iris and fingerprints) worked on the ground. 4G was the first company to give a proof-of-concept to UID officials for enrollment and later ran it in the Medak and Krishna districts of Andhra Pradesh.
But why did the UID Authority choose the iris technology? The answer: “The iris is the only internal organ which we can see from outside, but we cannot touch it as it is behind the transparent cornea. Its growth in the mother's womb stabilises by the age of 12 weeks and it will not change after that throughout a human's life time. It is also very rich in features, having 256 different reference points (unique points to take samples), compared with finger prints that have 35 reference points. It is a fool-proof technology, much faster to deploy and can be used for real time identification.”
For enrollments to the UID or for other state government-run initiatives, 4G uses an iris recognition system complete with video camera to capture the sample and store it in a data base, which can be scanned through millions of samples to get an accurate identity.
As an empanelled agency for the UID project, 4G Identity is now working in six states for the Department of Posts, three states for State Bank of India, six circles for the Union Bank of India and for the government of Sikkim. Tripuraneni says the Central government has a target of enrolling 60 crore people by 2014 and the remainder in three years from then. “Internally, we, as an empanelled agency, have set a target of completing four crore enrollments this year,” he adds.
4G Identity Solutions is a big beneficiary of various state government initiatives and the Centre's UID project. The company clocked Rs 55 crore in revenues in the last financial year, 95 per cent of which came from the government sector. "We currently have an order book of Rs 200 crore, to be executed by the end of March 2012. So, we will be a Rs 250-crore company by the end of this fiscal," says a beaming Tripuraneni.
However, things will change when the UID project is completed and wound up, he says. Once the unique IDs are issued to all citizens, corporates too will get a piece of the action. The country will see more corporate applications of iris technology, especially in the banking, insurance and healthcare sectors for checking address proofs, identifying policy holders and the right nominees. “We will be tapping that sector. This business (iris technology) will grow to some thousands of crores of rupees in the next 10 years or so,” he predicts.
Tripuraneni thinks that state governments are more proactive in terms of embracing the iris technology, for the simple reason that it is they who are in touch with citizens, and not the Central government.
“States are answerable to citizens and so they have more responsibility to deliver welfare schemes in time. So, wherever there is a strong political leadership, they are thinking beyond. Many chief ministers in the country are proactive in adopting such technologies to deliver and monitor schemes,” he adds.
4G Identity is also planning to take wing and expand its business to the US and the UK this year, to start with. "Now that we have created success stories here, we will be opening offices in the US and UK and explore opportunities there. We have already got an order from one of the African countries -- Republic of Chad -- for military identification, which will take six months from now to complete. Also, inquiries are coming in from south Asian countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, and from African countries. We are currently in discussions with them," he says.
“Iridian Technologies was acquired by US-based L1 Identity Solutions Inc, which was later bought by French conglomerate Safran Group's Sagem. Professor Daugman's patent will expire in July 2011, post which it will be an open-market technology. Hence, it will not be a hindrance for us to enter the US or the UK market,” he adds.