This Houston startup is also using facial recognition to take on the world of user experience and feedback in ways you may not have expected. It’s a wide-open field for creative minds!
Gina: Hi, I’m Gina Luna and this is HXTV, championing Houston’s innovators and entrepreneurs, brought to you by PKF Texas, the CPAs and Advisors serving Houston’s innovators for over 15 years. My guest today is Panos Moutafis, Co-founder and CEO of Zenus. So, Panos, let’s start by just talking about your background.
Panos: Ok, sure. First of all, thank you for having me.
Gina: We’re happy to have you.
Panos: My background. I was born and raised in Athens, Greece. My bachelor’s was in applied math and statistics. Towards the end of my career, I was trying to see what I’m going to do next. I had a discussion with one of my professors in the hallway, and he said that if I wanted to do something that has a big impact on society, then I should pursue research and academia. His reasoning was that whenever society has a problem, we always turn to technology, innovation, and research to solve it. And that got me really intrigued, so I started applying at Ph.D. programs in the United States in statistics. It was, I think, February 2011 when one professor from the University of Houston, he visited Greece to give a talk, and we got to know each other. He said, ‘instead of pursuing a Ph.D. in statistics, maybe you can come and work with me in computer science, because this will allow you to take your theoretical background and apply it in the real world with immediate impact.’
We got together well, and we had a good relationship. So, that discussion was started in February. In May 2011 I was here at the University of Houston and this is when I started working on face recognition technologies. My plan initially was to be a professor, that’s what I wanted to do was be a professor, but part of my research, the University of Houston felt that it has potential to be commercialized, so we filed for a patent based on this work, which was approved a few months ago. Also, the National Science Foundation, they have this program called Innovation Corps, and what they do is they take entrepreneurs, their advisors, and the business mentor, they put together a team and they give you very intensive business training along with funding to push you into commercializing your technologies and creating new businesses. Apparently, it works because here I am.
Gina: Because here you are.
Panos: Yeah, founding Zenus, and that’s how we got started.
Gina: Tell us about Zenus and what does the company do?
Panos: When I went through the I-Corps program through the NSF we realized two things: first of all, we had a very strong technology, and also, the timing was right. In startups, one of the—no, the most important factor is timing. That’s the most important thing. Not the product, it’s timing, if the market is ready for that. We realized there is a need and the timing was right. At this stage we didn’t know how to apply it and in which markets to apply. What we also found out through the same program was that focusing on one segment is very, very important. Why? Because you want to be able to have a market where the clients are addressing each other. Facial recognition is a very generic and broad and powerful technology and can be applied in many different domains. Some people get too excited and they try to solve all the problems at once, and this ends up hurting them without realizing it. Instead, we decided to focus on one regular market, nail it, and then start building the model and build each segment.
After doing customer discovery in different retail markets, we went up in the events industries; conferences, exhibitions, and so forth, and we are applying face recognition to streamline the ticketing process. How it works is the following, when you register for a conference, you just go in line, you fill out the first name, last name, email address, like usual, but now you have the option of either taking a selfie or using your headshot. So, this means you no longer need a ticket. When you go to the conference, we have the camera on, you walk to the station—the check-in station, you’ll be recognized as a participant and you go in. We saw two things that convinced us into pursuing this direction. The first thing was a very high response rate from the market itself. So, we were sending out emails to people and companies we didn’t know, and we were saying, ‘we have this idea. What do you think?’ We had a very high response rate, over 30%, which is incredibly high.
Gina: Saying that they were interested in the technology?
Panos: Yes, exactly. That was the first thing that pushed us in this direction. The second thing was the following. I started attending conferences myself and watching the process. I realized what is slowing down the whole check-in experience is the fact that you have to try to find the right email, and sometimes when you try to scan it, it rotates, or in other cases you have to show the screen and start reading all the instructions before you do everything. It’s not the scanning process that’s slow. It’s all the user interactions. With facial recognition we take all of these things out because while you are still walking to a process station you have already been recognized. This takes out all of this friction. We saw that even more—what creates lines? And the problem is very similar to what you have happen on the highways.
Sometimes, you see all the cars slowing down and coming to a stop and you might wonder, is this a car accident? Why is it slowing down? And you move along slowly through the traffic, and when you reach the congestion point, everything opens up and you get through really fast. There is a reason that when you have a limited space you can try to push many cars and many people through that, it is a small slow down that starts building up and creates a bottleneck. If you’re able to speed up the process by 10% only, everything flows much, much faster and that’s what you achieve.
Gina: So, this is the magic, part of the magic.
Panos: This is the second product line. This is a different product line that’s works with any device, any laptop, any cell phone, you don’t need any hardware at all. It’s also portable.
Gina: Before we go to this, tell me, you very quickly got adoption by a number of clients. So, tell me about that.
Panos: One of the things we like about events is they have different sizes. We started with a small event. The first event we did was the International Corporate Event (ICE) Awards in London. It was July 6, 2017—I remember the first event. It was about 250 attendees, and this is where we did the first deployment. Then, we were able to slowly go to bigger and bigger events. Keller Williams has been one of the companies who have adopted the technology a lot. We have done a very big event we service now as well. To give you an idea about milestones, we did the first event with 250 people, July 2017; August of 2018—one year later, we did deployment with Keller Williams, 9,000 people registered, 6,000 people opted in for face recognition. Two weeks ago, we did a February event with Keller Williams, about 17 or 18 thousand attendees, and we had more than 12 thousand people submitting their photo and checking in with facial recognition. It was a very good attraction, both from end user and the industry itself.
Gina: And, I understand from our previous conversation, there’s tremendous demand. Almost beyond what you can accept today, which is a great problem to have. So, talk about the growth of the company along with the acceptance and adoption in the market.
Panos: We have adopted a channel partner model, which means existing registration companies, existing ticketing companies can add our facial recognition solution to them, and they can designate it to their clients. This leads to a very, very high growth. In Barcelona, in November, there was this conference called IBTM, which is one of the biggest in the industry. Each year, they have this station where they’re asking the event planners themselves what is the best technology for the next year. Face recognition was voted as the most useful technology for attendees in 2019. Right now, we are working with some names, I can’t reveal all of them, but I can tell you that some of the companies we work with, some of them they do hundreds of exhibitions, each of them between 30-70 thousand people. And we are also working with some other companies that have smaller events, but volumes, we’re talking about tens of thousands of events and these are the deals that we’re pushing through to completely make this very broad.
Gina: I’m sure it’s hard for you to remain focused on just events, because as we sit here and talk, like you said earlier, I can think of so many applications where this is so useful. So, that discipline to stay focused in your lane, and really build the scale within that segment of the market, I know it’s the right thing to do but I’m sitting here, and my mind is racing about all the ways this can and should be used.
Panos: We do get a lot of requests and we will expand our scope in the future, but right now we have to make sure we do things right and we serve the existing customer base in the best way possible.
Gina: And what makes your facial recognition software, or your technology better than some of the others that exist?
Panos: One of the things about face recognition is that it’s more than one thing. It’s many algorithms stuck in each other in order to come together and form a system. We have made a lot of things better in each piece of that. So, we have files, an open application, and we have more in preparation. In addition to the core technology itself, it’s also how you package it and you implement it in your world. So, this can make a very big difference in terms of accuracy, speed, user experience itself at the end. We’re doing the full thing and we are involved in every step of the process. Whenever we do an event, almost always, I just fly there to see how people interact and each time we iterate to make improvements. A lot of the times I will fly to sit next to developers trying to integrate our solution to see what other developments they have. These things keep making things different.
Gina: Let’s switch gears and talk about, again, the company, and where you are in terms of your growth and what’s next for you?
Panos: Perfect. We have about 6 to 7 people. We are looking to double or triple that in the next few months. We have many things going on. In the events industry right now, we are doubled down—we are going double down on the check-in application. We have also released a new product, which is this small device. One of the biggest things, you know, as I said, check-in and making this process smoother is the beginning. The biggest thing that we see, across industries is user experience. Across industries, everybody is focusing on user experience. According to a survey by Gartner, most of the marketers believe that their brand differentiates almost entirely on the personalized customer experience, it’s huge. Eighty percent of the comments we differentiate based on that. Doing basic things like surveys, and demographics and so forth, it’s not enough anymore. You need to have real time analysis of who is the person, what is their background, what is their persona, how they’re feeling, every single touch point of their experience. The events industry is a very good space to do that. An exhibition, a conference, a trade show. The nice thing about using video analytics is you can get all of this information without having to bother the person.
Gina: Right. So, you’re gauging their emotions through the facial recognition software.
Panos: Exactly. But the challenge we have there is the following. You have an exhibition with 5,000 exhibitors, you now have 5,000 coming and streaming everything in the Cloud. A Cloud solution doesn’t work. So, we ended up coming up with this device, which is our assembly. Some of the pieces here is ours, and so forth. The way it works is even though it’s tiny, it’s smaller than my fist, it can do all the processing on the device. It’s very, very strong. It’s much, much more powerful than an iPhone, tablet, and so forth. It’s specialized for AI, its processing power. So, we can process the video on the device. What you do, you just put it on the wall, and it can detect all the people in the room, how many, how long they stayed, how they were feeling, and so forth. Because we’re doing this on statistics generally, algorithms and statistics, this is not tied to a specific individual, so there are no privacy implications. We don’t need any videos, any pictures. The only thing we keep and we process are statistics.
Gina: So, tell me, in terms of your growth, you’re really looking to build your team now.
Panos: That’s exactly right. And, you know, if I may say, one of the biggest milestones in 2018 was streamlining and having a very clear process on how we interview people. At the end of the day, it’s all about people and we want to have the best talent. So, yeah, we are looking to raise venture capital and this means we are looking to hire across all positions.
Gina: What is it about Houston, as an entrepreneur, that you love?
Panos: I would say two things. The first one would have to do with diversity. I really love how diverse it is. If you look at our team, we are like international.
Gina: United Nations.
Panos: Like that, yeah. So, this is very good. A lot of the improvements in the innovations we had came through discussions and having new people coming in contributing, and this is very valuable to have people of different backgrounds, of different experiences to contribute and build in common. So, that’s why, and it’s very, very important. The second thing is it’s a very good place to get started. Houston is the fourth largest metropolis, I think, in the US. A lot of opportunities, a lot of investors eager to support you in the beginning, lots of co-working spaces, and now we have some innovation hubs popping up around and they’re also helping a lot. We see a lot of VCs also starting to have offices in Houston as well. So, I think these two reasons.
Gina: Thank you so much for being here with us. It’s been great to visit with you and I’m excited to watch your success. And that wraps up my discussion with Panos, Co-founder and CEO of Zenus. I’m Gina Luna, and this is HXTV.
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