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Simprints non-profit biometrics growth dilemma now on Harvard Business curriculum

Categories Biometrics News  |  Trade Notes
Simprints non-profit biometrics growth dilemma now on Harvard Business curriculum

Toby Norman, co-founder and CEO of Simprints, first collaborated on the company’s Vero fingerprint scanner to facilitate aid workers from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in serving beneficiaries by giving individuals access to formal identification, notes a Harvard Business School Case. While the mission-oriented business was initially inspired by Norman’s humanitarian work, the company would later be forced to consider altering its strategy.

The Vero optical fingerprint scanner was first introduced to the market in 2016. The scanner is also an end-to-end system and connects via Bluetooth to an Android app. The app links the fingerprints of aid beneficiaries to their medical records and stores the data in Google cloud servers, which enables offline access. The user interface guides collection.

The company has since developed contactless biometrics capture software.

The fingerprint scanning system would help bring aid to 2.5 million people in 17 different countries with acclaim from the global health community. It would earn a total of $15 million, including grant funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and international development agencies.

Maternal health visits increased by 38 percent in Bangladesh, while HIV tracing in Malawi improved accuracy by 62 percent after the system empowered institutions to link patients to a consistent digital ID.

Despite these successes, NGOs had limited funds available to put toward verification, causing Simprints to hit a growth ceiling and limit their ability to scale impact.

After COVID-19 paused practically all NGO field work, the organization was on the verge of bankruptcy. Norman made an executive decision to refocus on government clients.

But many employees were first drawn to the company for their humanitarian mission and were skeptical of governments’ motives for working with Simprints. Almost 40 percent of the company’s employees quit in response to the change in strategy.

By 2021, the company faced an apparent choice between two paths: become open source or shift toward contracts outside of global development.

Going the open source route would allow the company to shift toward a consulting and advising role while sidestepping responsibility over who actually uses software.

On the other hand, in spring of 2021, a major tech company reached out to Simprints to partner to supply a cloud-based biometric system to support criminal record verification in Mexico. It would use the technology first developed for NGO clients. The deal would have been worth between $2 million and $3 million.

At the end of 2022, Simprints was announced it was awarded its largest ever grant, which was used to hire staff in Bangladesh for a project to facilitate vaccine distribution. The grant appears to have headed off Simprints’ funding crunch. The company has continued its humanitarian work with NGOs and governments, working with Gavi and Arm to track vaccinations in Ghana and calling for a consultant to work on ID verification for Ethiopia’s digital health care program in September of this year.

The quandary is now featured as a teaching case for Harvard Business School. “We’re thrilled that the case study has become part of the core curriculum for all first-year Business students at this prestigious university,” a Simprints Linkedin post reads. Norman spoke at the inaugural lecture for the case study in Boston.

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