“I think that winning the competition is something to remember for a long time. I will tell my daughters that when they were born I won a large international innovation competition.”
So said Alexander Dremin, a radio-engineer and electronics engineer from Yekaterinburg and CEO of Biosmart. His project is called BioSmart Combo, a biometric scanner that scans vein patterns in the palm of the hand, and the Startup Village Livestream’20 voted it the best IT project. What the jury didn’t realize was that two weeks before the final, Alexander became the dad of twin daughters named Valeriya and Veronica.
Alexander Dremin's winning pitch at the Startup Village Livestream'20 competition. Photo: Sk.ru.
“For me, these processes ran parallel. Taking part in the competition overlapped with my home duties and helping my wife,” said Mr. Dremin. “You could even say that winning the competition was a gift for my family. When they announced the finalist winners live, I was with my kids in the clinic at the maternity hospital, where we brought the babies for a checkup. When I found out about the win, I was very happy and went and told my wife to get the kids and that we were going home. When professional victories overlap with important events in one’s personal life - family life - it’s amazing.”
The Yekaterinburg company, Biosmart, has been working in the field of biometry since 2006. It’s specialty is the development of an original form of identification based on palm vein pattern scanning. During the Skolkovo competition, the company CEO Alexander Dremin demonstrated the new third generation device; not only can it scan a unique and highly accurate image of the veins in the palm of one’s hand, it can do so contactlessly and even through a medical glove. These features are particularly useful given the current situation with the pandemic.
The technology itself - vein pattern recognition (VPR) - was developed and patented in 1987 by the American scientist Joseph Rice. The method is based on the principle of scanning and reading radiation on the infrared spectrum that is reflected from the palm. Restored haemoglobin in the blood absorbs infrared radiation, lessening the reflected radiation from venous vessels in the palm. This creates a unique image that is processed using mathematical algorithms and is then written into a template.
According to Alexander, biometry saves a mathematical model instead of the original image - an identifier, whether it’s facial recognition, fingerprints or vein pattern recognition. A widely accepted standard in the biometrics industry is that reverse conversion from this descriptor is not physically possible; even if a hacker were to gain access to the descriptor database, he or she could not do anything without additional access to personal details.
“We use multispectral scanning technology in our scanner. The palm is scanned in two infrared bands. We have replaced infrared LEDs in third-generation scanners with narrow-band infrared lasers, making it possible to use the latest photonics and laser optics developments in biometrics. We developed an optical diagram, obtained the first samples and saw that the absorption and penetration coefficient under the skin is much more effective using narrow-band infrared lasers. I am not aware of any analogues of our technology, although it’s possible that someone else is conducting research in this area.”
What is striking is that even under the circumstances of a pandemic, the Yekaterinburg company has not reduced its staff and has in fact taken on specialists in the field of lasers and optics.
However, Alexander Dremin does not regard the pandemic as the driver of contactless biometrics, because the boom in that particular technology began in 2018. It has certainly nonetheless brought to the fore the companies and teams that are able to respond quickly and flexibly to the rapid external changes.
Prior to 2018, Biosmart launched a palm vein pattern scanner. The device has been widely adopted in companies such as X5 Retail Group, and nearly eight thousand shops have been fitted with it. Among Biosmart's clients are McDonald’s and Burger King as well as state sector companies.
According to the company CEO, Biosmart has been researching contactless biometrics for eight years.
“In Skolkovo, our project is called ‘Identifying a person through palm vein pattern.’ At the end of last year we presented the new development for the first time at Finopolis, the large banking forum. The adoption of these biometric systems for banking security was among the topics discussed as well as the possibility of implementing this type of biometric vein pattern recognition into a single biometric system.”
The events that followed then developed rapidly. In February, a large chain of European clinics contacted a Ural-based company with which Biosmart has collaborated on a pilot project since the beginning of last year. However, in February at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, the partners asked for new samples to be provided and for the creation of a new product so that even a person wearing gloves could be identified.
For now the device still hasn’t been released; although it is a successfully working prototype, the company is actively developing the project further. “We want to create a solution that allows for the identification of large databases,” said Mr. Dremin. “That way it can be used not for verification but for recognising many such as the identification of up to a million people that are in a database of this very clinic, for example.”
Alexander Dremin: Vocation - electronics engineer/radio engineer.
Today an ideal biometric method does not exist. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. For example, high costs and the bulkiness of the scanners represent the disadvantages of palm vein pattern recognition. Nonetheless, long-established ideas need to be reviewed.
“Facial identification is a very fast and convenient method of identifying an individual. However, the palm vein pattern method is a more secure solution - the accuracy is far greater and it’s almost impossible to fool the system. In order to do so, you’d need to make a fake image of the skin and blood vessels that is indistinguishable from the real thing. The eye iris is definitely a secure solution but the question comes down to cost. Biometric palm vein pattern recognition is in the mid price range. Low-end solutions use fingerprint identification and high-end solutions use iris identification. Vein biometrics is somewhere in the middle.”
Regarding scanner size, Mr Dremin stated that it is unlikely that smartphones with integrated vein pattern recognition scanners would appear in the foreseeable future. “I can say that a number of large corporations with which we collaborate in the field of mathematical recognition algorithms are already developing such small cameras.”
An engineer and his team
In 1983, Alexander Dremin was seven years old when the film “Never Say Never Again” came out and James Bond, who was played by Sean Connery, opened secret locks with the palm of his hand (it was the first portrayal of this in cinema even though the technology did not then exist). He had only started school and, of course, James Bond films weren’t shown in the USSR. Alexander would subsequently watch the entire Bond series.
At the age of 10, he would assemble his first personal computer, a Radio-86RK. The Radio-86RK was a Soviet 8-bit personal computer, designed for assembly by experienced radio amateurs.
Alexander got his love of electronics from his father who worked as a mechanic at a defence enterprise.
“After that came the era of the ZX Spectrum home computer; I built six devices and developed the software assembly. I even made some money through this hobby by writing software for cable TV companies. I optimized custom programs for clients, wrote small ads and even did some game outlines that were published in magazines. From the age of ten, my main hobbies were electronic devices and programming. It was cool to build a great piece of electronics and write the software and then sell it on.”
The makings of a future startup were obvious. But before creating Biosmart, Alexander graduated from the radioengineering faculty of the Ural State Technical University. “My calling was to be a radio engineer and an electronics engineer,” he said.
You can hear the pride in his voice when he talks about his company team:“We have a highly efficient team of developers, all locals from Ural. It consists of 25 programmers and engineers, with a total staff of over 50 people. The headquarters is located in Yekaterinburg where there is a center of excellence. There is an office in Moscow where sales and client technical support are concentrated (nearly all pilots are in Moscow). Our European office is in Prague from which we sell to foreign customers; that is also where we make changes according to the demands of specific customers. We are pretty mobile and the team is focused on achieving a fast result. They saw a new and interesting solution and incorporated it quickly by redesigning a circuit, the optics and writing new software. Our team is working well even under quarantine.”
The Biosmart brand has already established itself on the market and its products are being exported to 20 countries. One of its European clients is a hospital in Prague; an agreement has also been signed with Skoda for the adoption of contactless technologies for access control and work-time management. There have also been quite a few rollouts in Germany and Bulgaria. Now Biosmart is working with logistics companies; among the biggest partners is the Chinese giant, Alibaba.
“When we entered the European market, we thought ‘this is it, we have a great team and a great product.’ But in fact nobody was waiting for us there. We were a real startup. We were calling customers persistently and telling them that our technology is better, we took part in exhibitions in the UK and Germany; we went to Singapore to take part in the ‘Interpol 2019’ exhibition, and we went to Las Vegas. Bit by bit, step by step, we created a customer base.”
At the same time, they patented their technologies in Europe and the United States, and they gained a European certificate of quality (CE). They will soon be getting similar certificates for the United States and Singapore, the markets that the company is preparing to enter. None of this comes cheap and this is where the 3 million ruble prize money won at the Startup Village Livestream’20 will be of great use to the company.
In 2012, Biosmart became a Skolkovo resident.
“The Skolkovo Innovation Center isn’t just a name, it’s an entire infrastructure that allows startups to work on their developments,” said Mr. Dremin. “The first thing to note is the strong support from Skolkovo’s Intellectual Property Center (IPC). Thanks to it we have been able to patent our device in Europe and the US. We had a Russian patent with which we went to the IPC; they helped us draw up an international application and select patent attorneys in Europe and the US, thus beginning the whole process. Aside from that, it’s no less important that the IPC helped compensate for the costs of patenting. That is a serious sum of money for a startup.
Secondly, Skolkovo offers a great opportunity to meet with the top people from organizations that are potential customers. We took part in pitches for Russian Post and for a retail company. These are meetings with a very narrow focus where you can talk about your interesting developments. The attitude towards Skolkovo residents is always serious as they always expect worthy solutions from residents. We saw real returns from such meetings and companies called us offering pilot projects. Many of these projects have already been successfully implemented.
Thirdly, I would like to mention the business mission to Japan in 2017 in which I took part. We visited Panasonic in Osaka and Tokyo. It was amazing! I saw Japanese production from the inside. It’s an ideal model and we should aim for that in terms of organization, lean production and for organizing a cleanroom. As soon as I saw the production of optical circuits and optical disks in Panasonic, I immediately knew that in Yekaterinburg we would also make a cleanroom for optics assembly. Today we have that room. For me, the trip to Japan was a huge experience that I will remember for the rest of my life. For that, I thank Skolkovo!”
This interview was conducted via WhatsApp. Dremin’s account has a photo with the German phrase, “Leben ist gut, aber gut zu leben ist noch besser.” That is the legendary catchphrase from the film, “Kidnapping, Caucasian Style,” and it translates as, “Living is good, but to have a good life is better.” Alexander is learning German and once, when he was conversing with a Swiss colleague, he uttered this phrase in German and so it remained something of a motto.