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Sony spinoff goes global with biometric ID gadget

Wedge

Turkey is working on a nationwide project to install biometric authentication systems in hospitals and pharmacies nationwide.

A biometric authentication system is a way to confirm identification with fingerprints, a vein on a finger or in another part of a human body. The system has a higher security threshold than password authentication, as it makes it more difficult for people to pretend they are someone else. By introducing the system, the Turkish government aims to confirm a patient’s identification.

Recently, five firms have been selected to supply biometric systems for the project. Four of the five are Japanese, and three — Fujitsu Ltd., Hitachi Ltd. and NEC Corp. — have already established themselves internationally in the field of biometric authentication.

The fourth Japanese company is Mofiria Ltd., based in Shinagawa Ward, Tokyo, which spun off from Sony Corp. in 2010.

Sony began developing original technology on vein authentication systems around 2000.

Mofiria’s technology used in the vein authentication system is relatively simple and thus the size of the device is small.

Someone merely places a finger on the authentication device and it scans the concentration of veins found on the finger’s first and second joints. Then a near-infrared light emitting diode (LED) is projected onto the joints to make a clear image of veins, and a complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) censor takes a photo of the vein to confirm authentication.

Mofiria President Satoshi Amagai was appointed to head the vein authentication business section at Sony in 2007. Then-President Ryoji Chubachi said to him: “It’s an interesting technology. Please consider making a business out of it.”

Amagai succeeded in developing the authentication device, which is about the size of a credit card, for consumer use. Sony began marketing it in 2009.

The device, which can be plugged into a computer USB port, is still one of the main products for Mofiria.

Even though Amagai succeeded in commercializing the device, Fujitsu and Hitachi still dominated the domestic market, where it was used in banks.

But since foreign countries at that time were an as-yet unexplored market, Sony teamed up with domestic makers of automated teller machines and entered the overseas markets.

That gave Amagai the idea of breaking away from Sony.

“Instead of being under Sony, I thought I should be in a neutral position and expand the business by teaming up with local partners and integrators in the world,” he said.

The victory of the Turkish project bid also comes from the right choice of a partner.

Mofiria allied with Proline, a Turkish company making authentication systems for passports and driver’s licenses.

The Turkish firm has strong connections with hospital groups around the country, and in the future they are expected to use the authentication system.

Proline has seen an increase in sales volume since the project was launched at the end of June.

Normally, large Japanese companies want total control over the marketing of their products by themselves both at home and overseas, instead of teaming up with local companies and using their domestic sales channels.

But Amagai had a different idea. “Newly emerging economic powers welcome foreign companies to partner with local counterparts because doing so adds value to the local economy,” he said. This was another advantage of splitting from Sony.

When Sony developed the FeliCa contactless IC technology, it was used in the Suica prepaid electronic money card issued by East Japan Railway Co., and also in other money cards.

However, people need only one such card, onto which they keep charging money via ticket vending machines, and thus the market becomes saturated quickly.

Mofiria has found itself in a similar situation. It has to come up with a new business model in order to keep generating revenue.

Meanwhile, being a small company is advantageous because it can operate with a much smaller revenue, and it is not buried within the workings of a large company, as is the technology for developing FeliCa.

Many original technologies are undoubtedly buried within large electronics firms, and spinning them off as independent units would not only benefit the market but also boost the economy, observers say.

The letter “M” in Mofiria comes from “mobile.”

Amagai says he is now looking for a partner to install vein authentication systems in mobile devices, something he has thought about since his time at Sony.

Probably in the near future, a smartphone will effectively contain detailed personal information about its owner.

This section, which will appear every second and fourth Monday, features translated stories on hot national topics from the monthly magazine Wedge. The original article was published in the October issue. To see Wedge’s website, go to http://wedge.ismedia.jp/