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The Identity Makers

By Shonali Advani / Source: Entrepreneur October 2012 | Volume 4 | Issue 2

For those who have completed Aadhaar or Unique ID enrolments which is the world’s largest biometric identity exercise, you would be familiar with its multi-modal design format. However, what many don’t know is that a nine-year-old Indian company from Hyderabad has been behind Aadhaar’s different aspects, right from conceptualization to execution.

The company in question is 4G Identity Solutions, which has executed several large-scale assignments for federal governments, multilateral agencies and corporates in addition to the ongoing civil ID project. This company is a venture of Dr. Sreeni Tripuraneni, a qualified vascular surgeon, who was first introduced to biometric technologies while pursuing a medical informatics course in the UK back in 2001.

Here, he developed electronic patient record systems and tried to link it to patient identification with the use of biometrics useful in case of emergency. “I researched biometric technologies and found the iris scan is the best in terms of uniqueness. Accuracy, quality, ease of capture, and speed in retrieval of data,” recalls Tripuraneni, Chairman and CEO, 4G Identity Solutions.
With this thought in mind, he headed home in 2003, after purchasing the license to further develop and sell iris technology from Iridium Technologies, the company that its innovator John Dougman had licensed it to. However, hospitals were not quite ready for something like this.

Unique Ideas
Tripuraneni adamant on working around biometric technologies (specifically iris), decided to take the concept to government welfare schemes. “Only 15 percent of governments spend on welfare schemes reach intended beneficiaries. I realized that providing right solutions to plug loopholes in the existing system will bring me takers,” he says. But he was proven wrong. “No one had seen this technology working in India, except in movies. I had to educate them on the positive benefits of biometric technologies,” he recalls. He started with access control systems and in December 2003, he got his first iris deployment from the then Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu’s office, after a major naxalite attack. Once they saw the technology working in their own premises, the bureaucrats realized it could work in other capacities.

Playing on a platform
Today, 4G has both hardware and software products. Its core strength is the 4G multimodal identity platform which became operational in 2007.“The basics in identity management remain the same – capture biometrics, compare, de-duplicate and filter data for clients, and I have managed to develop a middle platform,” he explains. This saves money for everyone involved as the firm doesn’t need to redevelop the platform for each project, application or even new-generation hardware.“It’s pluggable and that’s what makes it scalable,” he points out. On an average, 30 percent of each project is customized as the application layer. In addition, his product vertical includes eAccess – Integrated access control system for high security areas, enrolment and authentication devices and smart cards all developed after Tripuraneni studies the requirements of different organizations. The latest is a proprietary noise removal technology, which enhances the image quality and adapts technology to work in the harsh rural environment in India. “Biometric scanners developed in the US or Europe operated in a clean, controlled environment, unlike here,” he says.

Customer Speak
In August 2011, the Andhra Pradesh State Level Police Recruitment Board (APSLPRB) conducted an examination for 17,000 candidates to hire constables and sub-inspectors, at six centers across the state, “We decided to use biometrics to avoid the issue of impersonation that had occurred in the previous exam in 2008-09. Some candidates had dubiously sought employment then by morphing photographs,” mentions M. Malakondaiah, Chairman, APSLPRB. This was after they tested the credibility of 4G’s solutions with a pilot in early 2011 for the Assistant Public Prosecutor exam taken by 2000 candidates. Between both projects they purchased 56 fingerprint devices costing ₹25,000 each. “They sent six technicians for software implementation, training and back-end support and taught us how to match data with our existing records. The systems are very rapid and robust,” says a satisfied Malakondaiah. 4G’s revenues come from sales of hardware (biometric devices which they import and resell) and on project based earnings. “We charge a price for end-to-end biometric solutions says Tripuraneni. On an average they charge ₹2.75 per person for biometric comparison and ₹50 for enrolments.

The civil ID scene
In 2011, a nationalized bank, one of the non-state registrars for Aadhaar enrolments, signed up with the company. They used 1,200 assembled kits provided by 4G Identity Solutions. Each kit contains a web camera, laser printer, iris scanner, laptop, photo-slab scanner, and background screen. Enrolment agencies need to procure equipment to implement operation, as registrars don’t purchase equipment. Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) pay ₹50 to registrars for each successful enrolment, who in turn pay ₹20-50 to agencies, based on competitive bids,” Tripuraneni explains about the Aadhaar enrolment process. “4G’s service was prompt and specialized, and they were able to enroll 75 – 80 per day, which is higher than the industry average. They worked with government missionaries, conversed with the public and were able to mobilize people well,” says a senior official at a nationalized bank, on the condition of anonymity.

The company has complemented 5.21 lakh Aadhaar enrolments across eight districts in the first phase of operations that took four months to complete, at a cost of ₹38 per enrolment. With Aadhaar, 4G has been involved since the proof-of-concept stage back in 2009, when UIDAI authorities were testing the initial set of devices. “They needed as solution. Back then it was unimodal – four fingers and two thumbs for scanning. Based on our inputs, they added the face scan and the iris scan as well in June 2010 – similar to the Odisha project in 2008,” he states. As per the UIDAI website, 4G Identity has completed 12.6 million enrolments, till date, at par with Vakrangee Software and after Wipro, which has finished 19.14 million. While there are over 50 companies which work on the Aadhaar project, most of them are enrolment agencies. Their requirement is for the applicant to be a 10th standard-pass student – the skills required are no more that of operating a computer. “These agencies are using our system at the back-end-application and devices both,” he emphasizes.

Learning through glitches
The technology, though now quite seamless, brought about its own set of challenges, especially since each case it was used for was unique in terms of environmental conditions, ethnicity and other external influences. Like all hurdles, these too only paved the way for further enhancements. For instance, in the UN World Food Program project in Odhisha, they weren’t able to capture fingerprints for 70 people. “We worked day and night with the R&D team to make it a success. Many technologies need to be indigenously developed as the working conditions are different all over,” he points out. A more unique obstacle occurred at an oil refinery plant in 2007, when there were false accepts for iris as a result of certain patterns specific to ethnic groups of this region. “The probability of two irises matching is 1 in 1.2 million and if you take both eyes it is 1.44 trillion. Dougman didn’t include this in his algorithm,” explains Tripuraneni. From an identification and technological point of view, it was a failure, which finally sorted itself out after much work between 4G Identity, Dougman and Iridium Technologies.  “He tweaked his algorithm to take care of this,” he says.

Client kitty
The company has got some impressive names lined up; which include both PSUs as well as corporate clients like ADP, National Hydro Power Co-Operation (NHPC) and Gas Authority of India Limited. For solutions provided to large enterprises, costs depend on number of employees, as well as number of sites and biometric devices connected to the system.
IT behemoths like Wipro and TCS operate largely as back-end IT system integrators in the founder’s view. “They don’t have an ID management practice. We’re algorithm and application developers providing end-to-end identity solutions, able to integrate all components of identity management. No company in India has the experience or capacity to work on national scale projects like us.” he claims. 4G Identity’s solutions for enterprise access management are complex systems capable of capturing the iris, fingerprints and a smartcard connecting to multiple facilities. It also has an escort facility for visitor management in high-secure areas, which means the system can track the movement of a visitor and his/her assigned escort within the premise.

Expansion ethos
Now that they’ve developed significant bandwidth by implementing several solutions in India, the company is looking to expand to overseas markets. “The problems in other Asian, African and Middle-Eastern countries are similar. We are actively looking at welfare and civil ID opportunities in these nations too now, “he says. When we met up with Tripuraneni, he was hosting a Kenyan delegation for the Election Commission, looking to issues election IDs to eligible voters, above 18years. As many as 30 companies participated in the tender, of which four were shortlisted, one of them being 4G- the only company from India. Tripuraneni is ready to deliver on the commitment as he awaits the verdict- a quality he says is necessary for entrepreneurs at all times, anywhere in the world.

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