Interview with Robert Cook, President Worldwide Sales, Smartmatic
fB: Can you please tell us a little bit about the background of your company?
S: Smartmatic was founded as a technology company basically by three people, Antonio Mugica, Roger Piñate, and Alfredo Anzola in the year 2000. In 2002 we were filing our first 20 utility patents in the USA and in 2003 we developed our first voting machine. We formally entered into the elections business in 2004 when Smartmatic won its first significant contract to do the elections in Venezuela. To win that bid we competed against 42 different companies. Smartmatic ended up winning that contract which was obviously the first significant business we had in the elections area. Since then, we have been able to grow from a $1 million business to close to $400 million in business last year.
With that election, we became the first company in the world providing the opportunity to not only report the election results electronically, but also to add an auditable and verifiable paper trail to support the electronic results, which is really the cornerstone of the business that we have now in the elections industry.
Our headquarters today are in London and we have over 600 employees in approximately 20 different countries around the world and all of that obviously is taking place since the initial contract in 2004. So we have grown from initially 20 employees to over 600 employees in basically 8 years.
fB: Well that certainly is quite a success story. Can you review your product lineup for us? I know that you have products besides elections as well.
S: Although the majority of the business we have today is in the elections area, we’re also very much involved in some large government infrastructure projects including what we call, “SmartCities”.
Our most complete portfolio is in the elections industry where we have solutions for every single stage of the election cycle. Smartmatic is also the only company in the world that can compile different solutions for an end-to-end automated election. Whether it be a manual or an automated election, we have the necessary solutions to improve election administration.
The focus outside of elections is in helping governments or the public sector finding ways to be more efficient. Probably one of the better examples that we currently have is a very significant contract in Cartagena, Colombia where we are providing an automated fare collection and fleet management system for the new Integrated Mass Transportation System in Cartagena. That is an 18 year contract where we will be providing the technology for the mass transit system there. Some other examples of projects that we have done are in the civil registration area in Mexico, Bolivia and Zambia. We recently began Haiti´s civil registry and identification modernization program. It is a technology and knowledge transfer project which we should be completing by the end of this year.
fB: When did Venezuela first use biometrics for elections?
S: Venezuela has been using biometrics in elections since 2004. However, at that point the technology was only implemented in the 8 most populated states, and was included only during the authentication of the voters.
During the presidential elections held on October 7th, 2012, Venezuela achieved another remarkable feat, as they conducted the first fully automated national election in the world. That implied using fingerprint capturing biometric devices nation-wide (at all polling stations), and the activation of the voting session conditioned to a positive biometric authentication of the voter (first time that is done in the world).
With this initiative, the Consejo Nacional Electoral (CNE) managed to deter voter impersonation and reduce to a minimum the possibility of electoral fraud.
fB: In your most recent election, speed was required to set up quickly. What were the challenges you faced?
S: The last presidential election, held on April 14, 2013, was a gigantic test for our company. We had only 34 days to configure the most advanced voting platform in the world, while providing all the necessary safeguards to guarantee a legitimate and transparent election.
Fortunately, after registering 2.2 billion votes worldwide, our extensive experience and project management expertise, became handy. Over 12 audits were performed to our voting system prior to Election Day. The platform performed flawlessly and operations and logistics ran smoothly.
It is important to mention that in Venezuela, each one of the more than 39,000 polling stations available had a small database of those voters assigned to it, including their fingerprints. That allowed authorities to validate the identity of the voter when he/she showed up to vote. This great benefit created important logistic challenges we managed conquer.
fB: How was the implementation of Biometrics in the new voting system received?
S: There will always be those who oppose change, but for the most part, reception has been quite favorable. As long as people understand the benefits of the technologies being implemented, and see the positive results in terms of better-run elections, technology is well received.
We have been able to reassure the population that the secret of the vote is by no means compromised by this technology.
fB: Where globally are you seeing the greatest growth? You mentioned several South American opportunities, is that where you are seeing the greatest growth so far?
S: We were seeing significant growth in Latin America, and the emerging markets more than I’ll say the westernized countries. The emerging markets whether it is in Africa, Latin America, or in Asia is where we see the most growth.
fB: What would you say is the greatest challenge facing the biometric marketplace today? With your wealth of experience especially with large scale deployments, what would you say are some of the challenges?
S: One of the most important challenges we foresee is people having enough confidence in their government as to provide them with information, whether it is biometric or just personal information.
Governments need to make a good effort making sure these projects, and their goals, are properly communicated.
People are concerned about providing biometric information and what the government is going to do with it. I think that is the biggest single issue that we see right now.
fB: So that is a privacy – data security issue?
S: Yes… It’s a little bit surprising but I think it really depends on how well the different projects or the approach is sold to the people in terms of what are the benefits in having that information available.
fB: You know Bob it is interesting because we hear time and time again, when having conversations with senior folks like yourself, that the pre-education process, exactly as you described, is a critical factor for a smooth deployment. That and making sure that the strong benefits are clearly understood.
S: Absolutely. I think that in today’s world, where there are a number of countries booming out of different political processes in which their people have gone through some complicated times, it is natural expect them to be suspicious as to what will happen to the information they provide. So the pre-selling job, making it very clear on what the use is going to be, will become even more important.
fB: I think I already know the answers to this question but has this been a good year for Smartmatic?
S: Yes 2012 was really the best year that we have had. We are very fortunate to be able to show a consistent growth pattern since 2004. In 2012 we established strong relationships with a number of new customers, for example Belgium, Brazil and Haiti. In Venezuela, one of our most loyal customers, we conducted two elections. In those elections we used an all encompassing, end-to end solution. Starting with the registration of voters, all the way to result publication, the entire process was automated. This is a world record, as it is the first time it is achieved.
So yes, 2012 was a great year for Smartmatic. And, as we look towards the potential that we have for the future, I must say we are very optimistic. The focus that we have is very, very clear and we see the market growing in a very significant way.
fB: Very exciting times for you. What can we expect to see from Smartmatic in the near future?
S: Certainly we have plans to be very aggressive in the marketplace. One thing that not many people are aware of is the significant amount of investment that we have made in research and development. I am very comfortable in saying that the amount of money that we have invested in research and development in Smartmatic is more than all of the rest of our competitors combined on an annual basis. We have development centers in Taiwan, Panama and Venezuela which are innovating in hardware and software to maintain our leadership role. We look to continue making such significant investment because it is a differentiating factor that we have versus our competitors.
fB: Well Bob I’m sure that is a significant factor in terms of your growth that you have a significant research activity. And I want to thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us today and congratulations on your success! I can’t wait to hear what is next for Smartmatic down the road.
S: Our pleasure and we appreciate the opportunity to spend some time with you.