INTERVIEW: Ritu Favre, CEO, NEXT Biometrics

INTERVIEW: Ritu Favre, CEO, NEXT BiometricsFindBiometrics President Peter O’Neill recently spoke with Ritu Favre, CEO, NEXT BiometricsFavre joined NEXT as its new CEO in February, and the following interview discusses her reasons for joining the Norwegian fingerprint sensor company. The discussion reveals her priorities for the company in 2017, specifically concerning the burgeoning biometric smart cards market. Conversation then turns to biometrics in IoT, the benefits of large sensors, the company’s flexible sensor technology, and a post-mortem on NEXT’s exceptional 2016.

Read our full interview with Ritu Favre, CEO, NEXT Biometrics:

Peter O’Neill, President, FindBiometrics (FB): You have just recently joined NEXT Biometrics as CEO from your previous post as SVP and GM from much larger organizations: Synaptics and Freescale.  What made this position and move so interesting for you?

Ritu Favre, CEO, NEXT Biometrics: Let me give you a couple of high level points about why I chose to join NEXT, and I can talk a little bit about the big company-small company transition at a later point. From a NEXT perspective, we just recently hit a milestone of shipping 2 million sensors of our product technology. As I was evaluating some of the options in my own career, getting to a company that had some success and that has had some volume shipments was very important. The story I like to use is that I’m not the person that is going to have three people in a garage doing software coding and building up that kind of thing, my strength and interest is to take something that has a really unique interesting technology and scale that up as I have done several times in my career. So, I would say that profitably scaling a company was one of the key factors in my joining NEXT.

Another reason was that I sort of fell in love with biometrics when I was at Synaptics. I have done all sorts of different things throughout my career, and biometrics as a market is really exciting right now, as is where biometrics adoption is headed. So, that was the second factor because NEXT is in an exciting area of biometrics and in a place where it is ready to scale.

The third factor was my being an engineer at heart and by training, the flexible sensor technology is super exciting. With NEXT’s flexible fingerprint sensor, just the concept of having an electronics component that actually can bend is something that is very different from anything I have done or seen. Being able to make that commercially viable was also another really exciting factor.

The final factor was I met the Board, I met members of the team and then I spent time with the company. NEXT is a tremendously talented organization. We have really very good deep innovators and thinkers but we also have a lot of people coming in from larger company backgrounds. Tying that all together allows us to take this company from the 2 million units shipped to something much, much bigger.

FB: What are you hoping to accomplish at NEXT this year? As the new CEO coming in I’m sure you are faced with many thoughts about what you would like to do, what are your hopes?

NEXT: My number one priority for the company is to position us into the Smart Card space. We are very well poised with our competitive advantages to move quickly in this space. We have a lot of things we are doing with our road map from a power perspective: the sensor technology and then getting the company to a point where we can do multiple developments in parallel to meet these market requirements.  Again, I’m pretty ambitious in the things we can do in biometrics. We are well suited in Smart Cards. There is also government-related access control, which is another really interesting area. Getting access into government controlled entities such as airports, pension benefits and more, are other very exciting spaces for which our technology is very well suited. I also want to try to position our product portfolio and our road map in that direction.

We also have a lot of business in the notebook space which we have announced a couple of times. There are things we can do to continue to stay relevant and strong in the high security portion of the notebook market.

We have both the sensor activities as well as the ASIC activities and we did issue a press release on our new A2 ASIC development. This is a custom built chip that will significantly cut production costs further and that will be implemented in Smart Card, notebook and access control markets. This is simply a piece of the overall system puzzle.  This ASIC will be a work horse for a lot of the products we are putting out into the market this next year and the year after.

What I really want to do is get our product portfolio positioned so that we can take advantage of this really exciting time in the biometric space and then grow with the market as it explodes.

FB: That’s a strong agenda of activity and focus, Ritu. Regarding one of your earlier points as to why you joined NEXT, I couldn’t agree more that biometrics are hot. We’ve been covering the industry for 16 years and really, thank you Apple about 4 years ago for transforming our industry almost overnight. FinTech, healthcare, mobility, almost everywhere you look there is so much activity and I’m sure you felt that as well.

NEXT: Exactly and I would say there isn’t even an application that I can think of that biometrics wouldn’t have a part in. Any place that you have an electronic component, I can see a place for a biometric kind of a system whether it is an eye vein, a palm, or iris or fingerprint. There is going to become more and more need for very secure identification as we go forward. I have gotten a lot of questions about small vs. big sensors, and iris vs. fingerprint but this market will grow so much, there is room for everybody to play in some way.

FB: Couldn’t agree more because at Mobile World Congress over the recent couple of years, biometrics were just starting to grow in momentum but this past year IoT, robotics, automotive, fintech, everybody was talking about biometrics. I think IoT would be a very good area for NEXT, wouldn’t it be?

NEXT: It absolutely is. The one thing that I am always careful about is the term IoT. IoT has a lot of buzz, but when you drill down and look at what that actually means it all starts to get a little fuzzy. I used to work in mobile networking. I ran a base station business and we talked about IoT there. How do you connect every electronic device in some way from an RF perspective? That’s IoT. For NEXT, one of the big markets that we are looking after is what we call Access Control. For me, that is also IoT from our perspective which is everything will be connected to each other. Let’s just assume that every single electronic device that has any intelligence to it is now going to be connected to the next electronic device. Now you get into this big issue of how do you make sure that the right people are actually getting in to every one of these electronic devices and that is where biometrics plays a big part.

NEXT’S specialty is large fingerprint sensors at really good cost points.  And if you put that confluence of factors together, what you end up with is something that will allow security at a cost point that people want and that companies will be more apt to add sensors as a product feature.

So, everybody is talking about IoT. Access control for NEXT is the way we approach IoT and because of our unique cost structure I think we’ll start to get a lot of people interested in putting a biometric solution into applications they had never even previously thought about.

FB: How does NEXT approach the sensor size vs. cost issue?

NEXT: I would say that my motto here is that ‘size matters.’ You will also hear every other competitor that I am up against saying size does not matter. I don’t know if you ever go to the airport and do your fingerprint, but typically you are putting four fingers down at once, or perhaps two or three fingers. If you go to some of these kinds of places where you need to have a high-quality fingerprint reading, you are going to find that a full-size sensor will be used and you need to put your entire finger there. I came from a company where we were selling small sensors, so I used to be the person who sold small sensors. For applications where you don’t have enough space to put a large sensor, and there are alternative ways to log into your device, smaller sized sensors can make sense. There is a lot of theory and a lot of science behind why smaller sensors work, but it is not the most secure implementation of a sensor. There is the convenience piece of biometrics and there is the security piece of biometrics. As you start to go toward the highest security kinds of applications you are going to see larger and larger sensors. However, in quality dependent applications you do need the full size sensor.

The second point is because of NEXT’s unique methodology and technology, we can get to a much, much lower cost point. We can offer a large sensor at the same or lower price than our competitors charge for small sensors. Therefore, we can go after high security quality dependent applications. We have patented our active thermal principle and we also have the low temperature polysilicon (LTPS), which we have portions of patents around. But a fingerprint sensor, with LTPS technology with NEXT’s active thermal principle is patented technology that we have and which leads to the lower costs.

FB: I’d like to revisit one of your earlier comments about why you joined the company that the flex technology the large amount of interest in biometric Smart Cards. All of a sudden over the last year this has really blossomed to be quite a large important area. Can you tell us about your flex technology and the growth in the Smart Card area please?

NEXT: Sure. To me as I was joining this company the next big wave that seems to be coming is biometrics for Smart Cards. If you think about again the security piece of it, banks. We see a big pull that is now coming from that industry to help reduce the level of fraud and also to provide more convenience. So, Smart Cards are definitely starting to take off from a biometrics perspective.

How NEXT fits into all this: For the Smart Card space, The ISO standard specifies a minimum size of 169mm2. This is considered the smallest size allowable in a Smart Card kind of an application. Today, NEXT is the only company that is providing the ISO standard compliant solution. Then, if you say flexible there are also ISO standards for what the card needs to be able to withstand.  Think about your credit card in your wallet; you are taking it in and out, you might be bending it, you might have all sorts of things happen to it.  So, there are ISO standards around what kind of bending and abrasion criteria you need to be able to meet.

So our flexible sensor for that particular size is one of the only solutions in the world that can provide what the ISO standards require.

FB: Has this been a good year for your company?

NEXT: It has been a great year for us at NEXT. We came out with our 2016 report and our revenue went from 4 million NOK to 96 million NOK. That is phenomenal growth in revenue and an early indication of our potential.

I would say that the scaling process was really well underway with being able to ship 2 million sensors up to now so being able to put all the operation pieces into place and getting a team that can start doing product development, getting the flexible sensor technology out and into the market and then being able to raise the money for the company, in my opinion was a phenomenal year for NEXT. We are very ideally poised now to have a strong 2017 and beyond.

FB: Ritu, thank you very much for speaking with us today. I’m sure your plate is very full and we appreciate you taking the time and I really look forward hearing more about your growth as you move further into 2017.

NEXT: It has been my pleasure, Peter.