Aware’s biometric solutions, then and now: Q&A with Rob Mungovan
Rob Mungovan has been directing Aware’s sales and product development for nearly 20 years. He’s one of a handful in the biometrics industry who remembers its earliest days, and has some interesting perspectives on how far the sector has come.
Please introduce yourself and the company.
Rob Mungovan: Aware has been an innovator in the biometrics market essentially since the industry formed. When I came aboard in 1997, Aware was breaking ground in commercialization of “wavelet” technology, and had recently played a significant role in helping the FBI to standardize an wavelet-based algorithm for the compression of fingerprint images; an important first step towards the digitization of the FBI’s vast trove of inked fingerprint cards. The compression algorithm, known as WSQ or “wavelet scalar quantization,” helped set biometrics on a path to growth by helping to establish a basic framework for interoperability, which was critical for the FBI system to serve its users. Aware was the first to offer a commercial WSQ product, and I was hired to promote and license it, and later to further build Aware’s biometrics business.
How has the biometrics industry evolved over the last 20 years?
The industry has evolved significantly since the mid-1990s. What started out as an industry focused exclusively on fingerprint digitization and search for law enforcement has become a vastly more diverse market. Biometrics are now used in some form by millions of people every day. The performance and reliability of fingerprint matching has substantially improved, and we’ve seen the maturation and adoption of iris, face, and voice modalities, with emerging modalities showing promise. Many of the founding companies of the industry have been consolidated into multinational corporations, which has changed the dynamics of the space in some ways.
There have been several catalysts that have fueled the growth of our industry; most notable are computing power, government investment, and demand for security. The exponential increase in computing power has impacted most technology businesses, and biometrics is no exception. Today’s smart phones have more computational capability than the Wintel desktops of ten years ago. Like many technologies—including the Internet itself—biometrics would not have flourished without substantial early public-sector investment and standardization. Finally, demand growth: our world has evolved from one dominated by a cold war between superpowers to a war on terrorism and cybercrime, where the goal is stopping individuals, not armies. In this environment, identity has never been a more critical element of security and defense, and biometrics are uniquely useful for identity-based security efforts.
How has Aware evolved since you’ve been there?
Aware is a completely different company now than it was in 1997. At that time, we were primarily a DSL technology licensing company that also had some interesting image compression technology. Today we are a profitable and financially stable, pure-play biometrics software company. We have the experience of a larger company but we’re small enough to be nimble and flexible; there are no layers of bureaucracy here. We have a long-term view, which is why we prioritize R&D and product development. Fundamentally, we apply government-grade software design and development practices towards delivery of enterprise-friendly products and solutions.
We’ve developed dozens of products since WSQ. Standards compliance and image quality assurance continue to part of our offering, but today we can deliver a complete biometric solution built upon a broad Aware product portfolio of software that supports complex workflows and highly scalable biometric matching.
Our customer base has also grown and diversified. In the early days, a large majority of our sales were to system integrators serving U.S. state and federal government agencies, but today about 40% of our business comes from outside the US. We have expanded our product portfolio to a point where we can enable complete solutions for just about any biometric application, including law enforcement, border management, civil ID, and mobile authentication.
We are also providing solutions that require less customization to implement. Where our U.S. Government customers tend to prioritize custom features and workflow, priorities shift to deployment speed and simplicity the further we get from that market. What doesn’t change is a need for software that is extremely reliable, durable, and well-supported. All of our customers expect value from their investment, and that means that the solution will do what it’s supposed to do for a long time. They want their solution to be flexible and extensible as their needs evolve.
What makes Aware unique in the biometrics space?
We are one of a handful of the original U.S.-based suppliers of core biometric technology that have remained independent; we have also remained profitable and financially stable. We’ve spent a great deal of effort building a broad IP base that has helped us achieve a level of self-sufficiency that is unique for a smaller company in the industry. Unlike other companies similar in size and mission, we can deliver complete solutions without having to sublicense software from other companies. This gives us key advantages in terms of flexibility, pricing, technical support, and speed of delivery to our customers.
What will be the major driver for Aware going forward?
The introduction of biometrics-enabled authentication on smartphones has also served to throw the doors open to applications of biometrics beyond law enforcement such as identity proofing.
As identity continues to become a bigger part of our lives, biometrics are playing an increasingly critical role in establishing identity for what we call “Know Your X”: Know Your Customer, Know Your Employee, Know Your Visitor, Know Your Citizen, Know Your Patient, etc. These types of applications are fast becoming an important contributor to our growth.
We also see lots of organizations that want biometric capabilities but don’t have the scale to justify implementing their own solution. Just like other more well-established SaaS offerings, biometrics-as-a-service makes a lot of sense for this type of customer, and has the potential to significantly expand the market for biometrics.
Aware is well-poised to take advantage of an evolving consumer and enterprise space, particularly outside the US where we also have made significant sales and marketing inroads. Our BioSP and Astra platforms are running in the cloud in support of one of the largest biometrics-as-a-service platforms actively in production. Our products are well-suited for delivering mobile solutions, and we plan to introduce more products in this area this year. Our rich product set and considerable R&D effort, together with a reputation for integrity and capability, bodes well for our company for the foreseeable future.