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19 June, 2016 - 23:58 By Tony Quested

Simprints to launch mobile biometrics in Nepal

Charles Cotton and Kate Kirk

Cambridge startup Simprints is part of the ‘Internet-of-People’,  one of  the emerging high value technology sectors identified in Charles Cotton and Kate Kirk‘s new book, ‘The Cambridge Phenomenon: Global Impact’, which explores the city’s thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem and the different ways in which Cambridge companies have succeeded internationally.

The Simprints biometric fingerprint scanners will be rolled out in July as part of a digital healthcare programme by non-profit healthcare company ‘Possible’ in Nepal – just three years after the founders won the Humanitarian Centre hackathon, sponsored by ARM.

Co-author of Cambridge Phenomenon, Charles Cotton believes that the unique ecosystem of Cambridge supports accelerated growth of companies with disruptive technology. He says “The ecosystem model invented here is producing viable companies that are able to translate world leading technology into sustainable businesses.”

Sebastian Manhart, director of business development at Simprints agrees; he says that being based in Cambridge has been invaluable for the company. “Cambridge is a special place, with a close-knit tech community. Local mentors like Dominic Vergine from ARM and Darrin Disley from Horizon Discovery as well as partnerships with technology companies like Fen and Searan have been critical to our success.”

Simprints’ technology creates a unique digital identity based on a fingerprint, which allows health workers in remote areas to access health records by mobile device. The algorithm in the biometric scanner had to be optimised to recognise worn, scarred fingerprints such as those of rickshaw drivers or of women burnt from cooking.

Sebastian Manhart
Sebastian Manhart of Simprints (credit: Jo Anthony Photography)

The development of a ‘box of electronics’ capable of collecting and processing the reference prints was accelerated by a weekly ‘hack night’ where up to 20 volunteers from neighbouring tech companies gave their time to work on Simprints projects.

Manhart says the company benefited greatly from this expertise. He explains: “We invited engineers and software developers to our ongoing ‘Simprints Hack_Night’; the response was tremendous we couldn’t have got the product to market in this time without this support.”

The profile gained from winning the ARM sponsored hackathon has led to further funding by Innovate UK, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, UKAid and USAID.

Simprint’s biometric fingerprint scanners will be used by non-profit healthcare company ‘Possible’ and later in the year, 45 workers from the NGO ‘BRAC’ will bring scanners to homes in Dhaka, Bangladesh, reaching 55,000 mothers and children. 

Manhart comments “The UN are already using biometrics; however, this requires a desktop setup. Simprints offers a mobile, durable and more affordable alternative.”

The fingerprint scanners connect via Bluetooth with the Simprints identification app, compatible with Android mobile devices. This has been integrated with Dimagi´s ‘Commcare’, a platform which enables healthcare workers to access and update health records. Some areas are so remote that the health worker may walk for several hours to reach a village. Fingerprints gathered are stored as unique and secure ID numbers and provide verification that a visit has been made.
  
In future, the system may be used to access other services, overcoming the issues caused by lack of birth certificates. The prototype was tested in the field and as a result takes cultural differences into consideration. 
Simprints has ensured symbols on the hardware are intuitive and added a strap, so that women can use the device appropriately without having to touch a male health worker. 

Despite the scanner attracting a lot of interest, there are no plans to scale up until 2017. This is due to the company’s values; when dealing with real and vulnerable people the technology must be robust and resilient. 

Simprints’ thrusting young entrepreneurs were honoured in the Forbes 30Under30 rankings for Europe earlier this year, having been a stand-out winner in the Business Weekly Awards in the spring of 2015. It originally gained £400k funding – £250k from the Gates Foundation and £150k from ARM. Then ARM and additional partners invested an extra $100,000 to boost a recruitment strategy.

Last October, Simprints was awarded £250k after winning a highly competitive grant from the UK Department for International Development for a project that will improve healthcare for over 22,000 expecting mothers and their newborns in Bangladesh slum neighbourhoods.

Amazon support positions city at forefront of voice controlled computing

When Amazon acquired Cambridge-based Evi Technologies it also decided to invest in the city; building a large development centre to house the Evi team and others such as Prime Air, in order to benefit from the entrepreneurial landscape. 

This is an example of a growing trend of multi-national companies attracted to the city, identified by the ‘Cambridge Phenomenon: Global Impact’ book. Co-author Kate Kirk comments: “The Cambridge Phenomenon has reached a status of brain gain rather than brain drain. 

“Instead of early-stage technology companies being bought up by overseas companies and taken away from Cambridge, we are now seeing multinational companies using acquisitions as a way of becoming part of the Cambridge ecosystem. These ‘sticky acquisitions’ are a major indication of Cambridge’s success.”

Cambridge entrepreneur William Tunstall-Pedoe launched Evi, a voice recognition personal assistant, in 2012; it attracted significant interest from multinationals and Amazon subsequently acquired the company.

Tunstall-Pedoe and his team became part of Amazon’s new European R & D laboratory headquartered in Cambridge and played a leading role in the development and launch of the new Amazon Echo and the Alexa software that powers it.

He says: “Evi is a good example of a Cambridge startup that has attracted millions of dollars of inward investment, providing a good return for our investors and creating many high value jobs in the cluster. Amazon’s investment in the technology has helped to secure the city’s position at the forefront of voice controlled computing.”

William Tunstall Pedoe
William Tunstall-Pedoe, founder of Evi, demonstrates Amazon Echo, which utilises his Evi technology. Image courtesy Jo Anthony Photography.

Amazon Echo has an impressive array of features; using the inbuilt Alexa Voice Service it can answer a wide variety of questions, play music from Spotify, read Kindle eBooks, report the weather and much more. Echo is also compatible with smart domestic devices, enabling voice control of lights and thermostats.

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