Episode #482: How Nymi is solving identity by the beat of your heart – with co-founder Karl Martin

Episode #482

Take a look at the similarities of the most significant technology waves that have caught on and you will see three distinct patterns emerge: The first is that the ideas were once considered insane. The second is that they solved a real-world problem. The third is that the inventors were looking in a different direction than the rest of the world at that moment in time. Consider the automobile, the airplane, the television, home computers, cellphones, Pets.com (ok, that was completely insane and didn’t solve a problem but it was a precursor to Amazon), MP3 players, Napster, smartphones and the promise of sensors, nodes and wearables.

This applies to the world of wearables today as it did to horse breeders during the emergence of the automobile. Look left, while others are looking right. Differentiate or become obsolete.

Nymi is attacking a problem – identity – with an approach beyond the simple fingerprint system implemented in the iPhone 5s. They are using our ECG as the basis for an identity algorithm and wrapping it into a beautiful piece of hardware that sits on a wrist. Karl Martin and his co-founders took this path which emanated from their research while at the University of Toronto. Based on the reaction from the user and developer community – plus a little imagination – this might be the start of a new identity revolution.

One of the things to watch for in this episode is the approach Karl and his team took. The product started as a fitness/health tracker and moved into what it is today – the significance of this revelation can not be understated. They realized that in order to succeed they needed to approach a problem (identity management on mobile) and fix it rather than finding a broad market and attacking it in a generic way.


Key takeaways from this episode. Click on the link and the video will take you to that clip

1. What’s it like inventing product while the industry is developing 2:00
2. What is Nymi? 3:10
3. What is the biggest dilemma of the “quantified self” movement? 5:20
4. Did Apple validate your business? 7:30
5. Is this a mainstream product? 9:00
6. What is the background of the company? How was it formed? 11:20
7. How has the transition been from research to entrepreneur 14:50
8. Is Nymi a consumer product or an OEM opportunity? 17:00
9. 2 things that will shape the wearables industry 19:00
10. Doesn’t Nymi have to attack an industry – not just “consumers”? 21:10
11. How does the Nymi do three-factor authentication? 25:00
12. How hard was it to stay focused on the platform (enabling identity) while the rest of the industry focused on the immediate requirements? 28:00
13. What is your primary objective for the Nymi? 30:45
14. How many wrists do you have to own to make it a standard? 32:15
15. How many developers have signed up in the first month of your developer program? 32:50
16. Has it been hard to get this product to market? 35:30
17. Where are the business opportunities that result from the Nymi platform? 37:50
18. At what point do you think about the exit? 44:45
19. What has the industry response been? 46:45
20. What about the implications on privacy? 49:15
21. What do you hope happens as a result of building the Nymi? 50:15
22. What tools do you use? 54:45

Raw Transcript

Rob: Build compelling real time apps quickly and scale them globally with the PubNub Real-Time Network. Only PubNub delivers the core building blocks for any real-time application. Find out for yourself by signing up for free today at PubNub.com.
Hello, everybody and welcome to UNTETHER.tv, I’m your host and founder, Rob Woodbridge. Well, this is all the rage. Obviously, I’m wearing one, and I think you’re probably, if you’re watching this or listening to this you’re probably wearing one. We are talking about wearables. We are talking about this technology that will be a-fixed to our bodies not just the smartphones, but beyond that wearable devices like I’m wearing right here, which has got the shine, wearable shirts, sensors embedded in clothing. Whatever it might be, even Apple’s new watch that’s coming out or Google Glass.
This industry is emerging, and a number of weeks ago we featured a great, little, Canadian company that you probably never heard of, which I hope you will at the end of this. A great, little, Canadian company that is focusing on using your heart rate as your password as a way to actually turn your devices on, turn your car own, open your door, do a whole bunch of things, and I’m very, very, very excited about welcoming Karl Martin, who is the cofounder and C.E.O of a company called Nymi, which the parent company is called Bionym.
We are going to get into all this. We are going to try to figure out what is going on in this wearable space as it’s emerging, what are they doing, why go after this space, and then also some examples, some samples, some pain, everything that you’ve been used to hearing on these episodes. So Karl, thank you for coming on and doing this. I really appreciate your time.

Karl: Thanks, Rob, thank you for having me.

Rob: Well, you’re, you’re in Toronto and I love, I love waving the Canadian flag. Unfortunately, I don’t like waving the maple leaf flag, like the Toronto maple leaf.

Karl: I understand.

Rob: But there’s rivalry, you know this Ontario rivalry between Ottawa and Toronto, but I love the fact that you are Canadian company doing something like this. And I got to… My first question to you is always what’s it like inventing, while this industry is being invented around you. You are really in that spot like a primordial soup kind of time. Isn’t it?

Karl: Right. Well, it’s definitely an exciting time. You go to conferences in this space, the wearable technology, and you can really feel it that everything is trying to figure itself out. There’s all sorts of interesting gadgets and gizmos, and everybody’s thinking what am I going to use this for, but at the same time, you realize this is the future. It’s all starting here. So as a company we are very humble, and we say, “we don’t know what the answer is,” but we’re putting forward our technology and saying, “We think this is a part of what the future is.”

Rob: I see that everywhere. I walk into an Apple store. I just did this yesterday, because I like to check up on what’s going on. What Apple is selling, and there is Fitbit and there is Nike Fuel- Band and there is the shine and then there, there just seems to be an incredible number of wearable technology out there that, but I only have one wrist, and they all seem to be attacking the same challenge. Talk about what you’re doing with Nymi here.

Karl: Right, so you actually brought up a good point, which is going to be this competition for body real-estate, which is we only have so much space on our body. But you talk about all these fitness activity trackers and that’s probably the most mature, yet still young part of this market. What we are doing with the Nymi is looking at something completely different, which is identity. Right, it’s saying how can use identity, put it on the body, and make it essentially a powerful tool for every day life, and so what the Nymi is, is it’s a bracelet, a wristband that authenticates your identity based on your electric cardiogram. So this is the electrical signal that your heart produces as it beats.
The research goes back many years. We are a spin-off of the University of Toronto, but it was more recently when we realized that this Biometric technology really made sense as wearable technology, because when you put it on the body and you’re wearing something that knows who you are, now, everything like passwords and pins, and keys and cards all of that can be essentially replaced with a single wireless signal coming off of your body. As far as we know, no one else is looking at this, so in some ways, I think we are opening up new area of wearable technology, and it’s definitely very exciting to us.

Rob: Like, this goes beyond that kind of whole quantified self movement, which is what we are hearing about these devices, right where, your . . . I did a fascinating episode, recently, about the quantified self with Nora Young with CBC, who you probably know from Spark and we talked about this back and forth around how we’ve become lazy, really, because of the technology about quantifying ourselves. Like in the olden days we used to write journals. Like pen to paper and write journals and our thoughts and our feelings, and now we just measure steps and if we hit our 10,000, we’re quantified. Right?

Karl: So, I mean, pointing towards this whole quantified self movement, I think one of the big problems you find is, sure, we have a lot of data, what are you going to do with that data, right? And I think that’s the real dilemma. Sensors have become very affordable. Startups can create new devices. It’s very accessible now. But how is this actually going to make people’s lives better or easier in some way? And so, us as a company, we want to focus on something that really has very specific use cases rather than being completely wide open.
And so, I mean the reason why we did this was simply because our background is in biometrics, so we actually came into the wearable space. It’s not where we started. And we realize that by bringing this more, this typically more security-orientated technology into something that is much more useable to general consumers, we actually have a shot of really changing the way we interact with technology. And I think that’s what really motivates us to say hey, we have some technology here. Yeah, it’s cool and you know…

Rob: Looks great.

Karl: …yeah, but what really gets us going is saying, hey we can actually really change like touch screens completely change our idea of mobiles, this concept of putting identity on the body can change a concept of what wearable technology and interaction technologies can mean.

Rob: So, it’s so fascinating. It starts in the University of Toronto, U of T, and you know what you must see with the new Apple, with the new iPhone that just came out with fingerprint sensing or scanning must fill you with at least a little bit of happiness because Apple is focusing on that and security is now, we’re talking about the gateway to everything. Not only to your car and your home, but to commerce and your wallet and everything else emanates from owning identity. Facebook’s trying to do it. Obviously Apple’s trying to do it. Google’s trying to do it. And then there you are in the middle of this fray. So that must have filled you with a little bit of happiness to see that.

Karl: Definitely. I mean people will talk about competition but what’s actually more important for a small startup is to validate that there’s a market and people care about what you’re doing.

Rob: Right.

Karl: And so when Apple came out with a touch ID fingerprint system which everybody knew was coming, it wasn’t a huge surprise, we actually loved that just because they got the conversation going in terms of what biometrics means in the consumer space.
But at the same time, we also thought it’s very sort of old school thinking, this idea that you would put this single purpose sensor on a mobile device where we launched a week before Apple with the touch ID and we thought that ours was pretty much 5 to 10 years ahead of what they were doing. It’s not just about unlocking your phone, it’s about unlocking everything. And it’s also not just about security, it’s about how you can use your identity to have a hyper-personalized user experience. We’re talking the future of smart homes. You know, automated office. All things like that.

Rob: I know. I mean it’s astounding where this can lead. But I always worry that the consumer is the thing that holds us back. Holds all the technology back. It’s us, really. I mean the technology’s out there but it’s about changing behaviors of consumers and making sure that there’s a sense of security that things are going to work fine all the time. And I think that, I mean, we’re not there yet are we? We’re not ready for this.

Karl: No, I mean I think, well the great thing about today and being able to launch something directly on the internet is that you have a direct window to who those early adopters are. Right? Because you can’t launch a product like this and assume . . .

Rob: It’s ready for everybody.

Karl: …exactly. And so that’s the great thing. You know, we have some pretty rabid fans actually, and we love them. And those are the people who are going to help us learn. And we’re pretty humble about the idea that all these use cases we think about for technology, really they’re just ideas and proposals. Right? And you need to get something out there and see what people say about it and I fully expect that there’s somebody out there that has way better ideas than we do and that’s what really gets us excited as well.

Rob: You mean way better ideas on how to apply it? Or?

Karl: Yeah, on how to use it. I mean, we don’t want to be seen as just a security technology. To us security is an application. It’s an important application that’s in everybody’s minds and that’s probably going to be the driver for initially validating the type of product that we have. But we’re thinking beyond that. Identity is at the center of everything we do. You think of a very simple example of futuristic devices, like the Nest Thermostat, right? That’s the thermostat you put in your home, adjusts to what you want, but how does it know that it’s you? It doesn’t, right? And you think of everything else out there that is ready to give you a hyper-personalized experience but it doesn’t know that it’s you.

Rob: Yup.

Karl: And that’s why we believe that we’re an enabling technology to really push that forward.

Rob: Yeah, Bill Gates talked about it in his late ’90s book called “The Road Ahead,” where he talked about the customized home. And he built this home where you walk into a room and it adjusts the thermostat based on who you are, the art, the music, it changed based on who you were. And what he had was a little clip-on, a little pin, basically, like a lapel pin that was yours.

Karl: Yes.

Rob: That was your identifier, right?

Karl: Yeah.

Rob: And then what you’re doing is you’re validating with your heart man, like your ECG, right? And that to me is fascinating. But I want to pull back a little bit and talk about the evolution of this cause there must have been this moment, right? Are you from the University of Toronto? Did you start there?

Karl: Yes. Myself and my cofounder, we’re both Ph.D. graduates from Electrical Computer Engineering. We’re research nerds. But like a lot of people, we actually like to go beyond writing papers, and we wanted to see what we could with our technologies. So going back to that time that we founded Bionym in early 2011, so about two and a half years ago, and I can say the Nymi was not in anybody’s mind at that point in time.
How it actually started is that my cofounder is the one who had this invention of using ECG as a biometric identifier. My work was more in the area of cryptography and security. And so when we started the company, we had sort of vague ideas of what kind of products and markets we would go after. And it was much more business oriented, which is where biometrics mainly sat two years ago.
And I could tell you, we had a ton of interest in our technologies and a ton of inbound interest from various consumer electronics companies that we considered licensing our technology to. But we always felt that this idea that we could perhaps imbed ECG sensors directly into mobiles like Touch Ideas as a fingerprint sensor on a mobile, we always felt in the back of our heads like that wasn’t quite it. Like that was maybe the obvious route, but then what’s the big advantage over, say, fingerprint. There’s not a huge value proposition, as we say in the startup world.

Rob: It’s kind of like the gateway into one window, right?

Karl: Exactly.

Rob: As opposed to what you’ve got.

Karl: Exactly. And so it was only . . . the great thing about being a research-based startup is that there are grants that can help you figure this out. So we were supported by grants for a while. And it was really only this year, there was almost a eureka moment that said, “Well, what if you’re wearing something that authenticates you?” And it was this . . . it sort of kept layering on. How is a person going to interact? Well, there’s obviously going to be motion sensors and that supports gestures. And then say, well, different applications depend on the distance that the person is from, what it’s communicating with. So we have proximity detection.
And then when we had those three things put together, a wearable device that authenticates based on ECG, it communicates wirelessly and detects proximity, and it has motion sensing as a simple way of user input. And then we shopped it around just to see how people reacted to the concept, and you see their eyes light up, right? And we realized that we had hit on something and it’s probably not the final answer, but it’s the beginning of the road here. And so since then, earlier this year, we moved very quickly to make the product a reality.

Rob: What’s that transition been like, from researcher into . . . because even though you describe yourself as experimenting with this, and I think it’s a great way to look at it, because this industry is all experimenting. I only have two wrists and two ankles and one neck and four pockets, and the idea of jamming stuff into them all sounds interesting but ultimately, it’s all an experiment. But how has that been for that transition for you? From core research into raising money from a VC and then to actually trying to commercialize this product. How’s that been?

Karl: Well, in a nutshell, it’s been awesome.

Rob: Good answer for your investors.

Karl: I think I mentioned before, it’s just that doing research is great. I originally thought that I would do pure research or I’d become a professor. But, I realized what really made my heart skip a beat, not to make a terrible pun…

Rob: You just did though. You just did…

Karl: Yeah, I’m sorry. It’s not about writing papers and getting citations. It’s about seeing people first look at what you’re doing, do a double take, and say, hey, I didn’t know you could do that. But, then it’s also actually putting it in their hands and seeing how it can excite people, give that sense of delight, and also be very useful.
I think that’s what drives everybody here which is this idea that we’re completely breaking new ground. We’re not just trying to optimize this or tweak that. It’s about actually doing something completely disruptive, to use a buzzword. That’s exciting.
It certainly has gained a lot of attention. I think since we launched about a month ago it’s been phenomenal. That’s the best validation for us is that we were getting ready for this party. We weren’t sure if anyone was going to show up. Everybody showed up, so that made us happy.

Rob: You alluded to something before which was building the technology and licensing the technology out. It’s an interesting thing for me to think about this. The challenge is, we’ve said it a couple of times, that I only have so many extremities. I’m only going to wear something. I’m not going to wear some things, no matter what. I was looking yesterday at the Apple store, I was like, oh, I could fit the Fitbit on the other wrist. But, then I thought, well that’s a little compulsive. And then I can get the Nymi for the second bracelet on my wrist.

Karl: Yes.

Rob: And I could add up. This is going to be now a battle for your pocket, for your smart phone. It’s a battle for your car which is the operating systems that are going to drive the cars, the dashboards of your life. And also now it’s going to be the battle of the wearable technology whether it’s Google Glass or Apple iWatch or Samsung Watch whatever it might be.
So, back to that OEM idea. Would you look at this as what you’re building with the [inaudible 17:28] prototype? And then, is the hope at some point of just saying okay, listen, we’re going to build a chip, we’re going to stick that into every device that’s possible, and we’ll be the identity company? Because those are two different things, consumer versus an OEM play. Tough to distinguish between them.

Karl: Absolutely. You certainly hit upon many of the discussions we had behind the scenes here. I would say that number we haven’t completely eliminated any paths. For us, like you said, I’d say it’s beyond a prototype. It’s more like a proposal to the world. It’s saying, here’s what capability wearable technology can have.
Then, we need to step back a little bit and listen. Listening to not just what the consumers are doing but also what others in the wearable space are doing. There’s certainly been no shortage of people asking us, well, shouldn’t you obviously just embed this in a smart watch, shouldn’t you be partnering with the smart watch makers? The answer is maybe. We as a company are not fully invested in the smart watch as the ubiquitous wearable of the future. It might be…

Rob: What do you think it is? What are you guys looking at now? I was going to save this question but you brought it up. There’s got to be this thing that you’re looking at. Is it Glass? Is it retina implants?

Karl: There’s been no shortage of people saying, well, implant is clearly the next generation of what you’re doing. I’d say we’re probably not thinking along those lines.
There are two things that I think are important that are going to shape the way wearables play out. One is this idea that when you wear something it should melt into the background. I, personally, am not convinced that there’s a justification to have a big screen on your wrist. Some people might disagree. That actually goes to my second point. But, still my first point, we believe in the technology that you don’t have to think about. So, that’s why we’re not fully investing in the smart watch concept.
The second thing is this concept of fashion and personalization. Right now if you look at all the fitness trackers, they have a pretty common aesthetic. There’s almost a bit of a statement you’re making when you’re wearing it, and not necessarily everybody wants to make that statement. So, how do we support fashion and different tastes and trends?
So as a company we’re thinking about that and how it might be embedded in different form factors that can be changed according to a person’s personal fashion sense. And so that’s kind of the reason why we’re not saying, okay, the next step is this and this is in a smart watch. It may be in a smart watch plus many other wearables or it may be in different form factors that we enable through a modular approach. And I can tell you we’re working on all of these things right now.

Rob: Yeah, I figured you were. If you’re experimenting as a business, you’re experimenting with all these things. Because the idea of running a consumer product, you brought it up, is you know that these things that we wear are statements and they are as you would call humble brags. Right?

Karl: Yeah.

Rob: That’s exactly what they are. You know, I’m fascinated by this space and I’m, but it is. It’s a humble brag. I mean, these things can be in our pocket, but they’re not. They’re on our wrist. Right?

Karl: Yep.

Rob: And they’re on our wrist because you want to have a conversation around these things. And I think the aesthetic of the NIMI is just that. It’s a beautiful piece of technology. But there has to be you guys have to go after an industry, don’t you? You know when you think about this, is that it can cost a whole lot of money to market a consumer good. People understand that. Right? And it takes a lot of money to be able to do that. But, I mean, is there a single spot or single business or type of business or industry that you’re going after with this or thinking about going after?

Karl: Certainly so, without going into too much details of our business strategy, I would say that there’s calls for this type of technology in multiple industries outside of general consumer. One area is certainly corporate enterprise. Security, which goes from physical access control to accessing networks and computers.

Rob: Yep.

Karl: Also healthcare. But there’s multiple areas within healthcare. Number one, you’ll have doctors in sterile environments that will have, would like to interact with technologies in a way that they don’t have to touch it.

Rob: That’s so interesting, man.

Karl: Yes. So we see, we’re not the, you know we do very simple gesture recognition and there’s other companies that do much more complex gesture recognition which plays to that, but then how does, and you have data security and privacy, how does the terminal know who the doctor is? So that’s another space that we’ve certainly had a lot of interest. That being said, in our initial launch about a month ago we looked sort of squarely straight up the consumer and said are you ready for this? Right? And it really was a question.
And I think the biggest draw goes back to the humble password which is annoying everybody to death. And, but on the back end you have the Googles and the PayPal’s that deal with the fallout when people’s accounts are compromised and whatnot. So I think in terms of sort of the very tangible, immediate use cases, replacing passwords is really one thing that resonates with the general consumer but at the same time we have those specific verticals, I’d say corporate enterprise and healthcare, are ones that are of specific interest to us that we’ll be moving into.

Rob: Do you think about, like I think about military as well. Right? You know, along the same lines. They’re always looking for that. They’re the early adopter of early technology that can benefit them. But I love the idea of the doctor’s piece. And you know, these are the things that you don’t think about but this technology allows you to start to think about those. But you know instead of getting rid of the swipe cards, getting rid of the swipe cards is another thing that I think this is really the beginning of this.
And I love your approach because, look, you know what? Putting, giving you a password is one thing, right? And then making me do you know 13 characters with a capital and a number and punctuation is a secondary level. And then also making me remember that across all these different sites that we now interact with is another thing all together. And then giving me a piece of software that actually manages all my passwords that has one password on it so I can just log in and it knows all my passwords…

Karl: Yeah.

Rob: …it’s the same as email. You know email is broken. Passwords are broken. So stop trying to add layers of bad code on top of them both and build something new. Right?

Karl: Yeah. I agree. And I think that the funny thing is that they say that aren’t you just a password mantra? I say, well have you ever tried to use a password mantra on a mobile device?

Rob: Not so good.

Karl: I mean. It’s awful. So, yeah. I mean, that’s why it really was a eureka moment when we thought wearable technology and how it would work because it was like this is not just an incremental improvement, this is completely turning everything around.

Rob: Yeah. This is getting rid of that.

Karl: Yeah.

Rob: And this is what the eye scan or the retina scan was supposed to do. This is what the fingerprints were supposed to do. And we’ve been looking for a body metric that allows, allows us to show our identity. Just like a snowflake. Right? We’re all unique. Right?

Karl: Yeah, so we’re all unique. We’re all unique. Yeah.

Rob: So, how, I mean how, I mean I don’t know how you can answer this question, but, are there no two ECGs alike?

Karl: So, we actually look at it as a spectrum of uniqueness, and I should tell you that fingerprints, even to an expert, have been falsely matched. So,

Rob: There’s always a risk.

Karl: There’s always a risk, and, DNA is considered still the highest form of biometric, but the limitation tends to be that: It’s not always how unique the biometric is, but the technology that’s used to automatically classify that, and say whether you are you. But one thing that is sort of subtle point of the Nymi which is not immediately clear is that we’re actually using multiple factors. The biometric is one factor.

Rob: Proximity’s another, right?

Karl: Actually the wristband is another factor, because the wristband is registered to you, and it’s considered a trusted, secure device, so you talked about those old days when you thought about just carrying a token. Well that, in itself, is a token, and then we’ve added the biometric on top, so that’s two factors.
The third factor is actually that we’ve designed the system so when you first put the wristband on, say at the beginning of your day, it talks to a nearby smartphone or tablet that has our app on it. It doesn’t have to be on you, just nearby, in communication range. That actually has an app on it, you register it, it becomes a trusted device that becomes a third factor.
So as a user, you don’t even have to think about it, right? You put it on at the beginning of the day, you touch it for a few seconds, it’s communicating wirelessly, and it’s done. You just did three-factor authentication, and you didn’t even know it, it’s secure, and we’ve certainly seen that the touch ID sensor can be bypassed, that’s single factor. That’s what happens if you do just a single factor and say, “Yep, you’re in if you just bypass this.” So the Nymi, we thought by making it wearable again is what enables all of this, without even really having to think about this.

Rob: How hard was it to fight that temptation to add to this? You’ve got that software, my view is this: We’re all going to commit, at least I think, to something, right? Like people wear Fitbit, people wear Fuel band, I can’t believe that people wear Google Glass, all day, like [Robert Scoble], all day, all night, every day, I mean it’s just not the right form factor for me. I mean, people who wear glasses… don’t like wearing glasses. Why would anyone put them on? We’re all going to commit to one flavor of this, at some point, and I don’t know what that looks like, if this industry goes the way it’s supposed to, so this is one thing, and it’s hardware.
What this enables on a smart phone is a completely different world. You just said, your device talks to the app on the smartphone, whether that’s probably over Bluetooth or it’s over Wi-Fi, whatever it is, and so really there’s a tremendous amount of power with that connection, and then you can start to amplify, augment, what this thing can do through the software. So if it’s done right, you’ve got sensors and everything in the device, then all of a sudden you’ve got this piece of software on the smartphone that will enable new features.
How hard is it for you guys to kind of pull back and think, “Well, we’ve got these 37 ideas up here, on the board, but we’re not going to enact one; we’ve got to get this one right first.” And where everyone’s kind of going over here with the fitness and you’re going over here with heart rate identification and security, how hard was that to not want to stray over to this side where everybody’s talking about right now?

Karl: Well, it’s very hard, for sure, because I can tell you that before the Nymi became solidified to what it was, I think there was a phase in there in the middle where it was an activity tracker. So it is a challenge, and that being said, we have taken more of a platform approach, and we think of the hardware as a vehicle. The hardware is not the be all and end all of anything; it’s a platform and it’s a vehicle.
The software that we are trying to it is about enabling identity and using identity for multiple applications. Taking the very developer-centric approach, meaning the developer could actually write an activity-tracker for the Nymi, because the sensors are all there. You don’t see that anywhere in our video or our website, because, as a business, it’s a simple thing: As a startup, you’re constantly having to validate everything that you’re doing.
If you put out, essentially, five different proposals as to what this is, how do you validate that? And you always have to be ready through your validation process where you’re essentially told, “This is not the way to go.” By spreading ourselves out we would never have that opportunity, we would likely get mediocre validation here and there that would say, “Okay, we’ll keep going.” It’s terrible for business. You just have to focus, and you hear that all the time. We have advisers to our business and it’s just always focus, focus, focus.
I forget who it was, I think maybe it was Thomas Edison that said, “I’ve never failed, I just found a thousand ways that didn’t work.” That’s what we’re doing, if something doesn’t work, it allows us to move on to the next thing.

Rob: But is the goal to do that and just open this up as a platform? Like your primary objective it would seem is to get the Nymi on as many wrists as possible.

Karl: Yeah. We want to get the platform out there, identity is still the core of everything we do. That’s not going to change. But again, it’s that awareness that the wearables space is still figuring itself out. You want to leave yourself a little bit of leeway there, we’re focused on saying when we deliver user experience, it’s going to deliver it to the fullest. But in today’s world, the developers can’t. To ignore that I think is the detriment to whatever you’re thinking of doing. You have to often assume the crowd is smarter than you. You want to mediate that for sure. You can’t let the crowd take anything wherever, but at the same time you’ve got to be open to say, “I’m wrong, I’m right.” And make decisions and move.

Rob: I love the idea, because everything that we’ve talked about, all these other devices that we have are pretty much closed systems. They’re managed by companies and they’re brought in. It does this and you wait for an update for it to do what you want. And it might be coming up or it might never be coming up. But I like the idea of, “Listen, our goal is to get this on every device. And our focus is on validation of who you are. You are this person and however many means, three, four, five, fifteen, it doesn’t matter.” I’ll ask you that in a minute, about proximity. But how many wrists do you have to own before you can really attract the developer community to start building applications that they can then turn into revenue through your platform? Do you get that thought?

Karl: If I had the absolute answer to that, I’d probably be a lot more wealthy than I am right now.

Rob: It’s more than ten?

Karl: It’s more than ten and probably less than a billion, somewhere in-between there. Just to give you a few numbers, some of which we haven’t made public yet but I’m happy to share with you, which is that in our first month of the launch, we’ve had about 5,000 developers sign up to write applications.

Rob: Come on. Now did that exceed what you were looking at?

Karl: It did. I think if we had reached a thousand, we’d be dancing and with 5,000 we were extremely happy. I think that the capability of the technology is ultimately what motivated them. I think some people think it’s going to be the wearable technology of the future. Others don’t know, they just think it’s cool and they want to do something. But I think it’s this organic process, it’s a movement right? How does a movement start? It doesn’t start with a match, it starts with a few people that later you call visionaries, first you call crazy.
And so you know, there’s no shortage of people who called us crazy. We see it as this organic movement. We have those fans, we’re going to nurture them and help them as much as possible because they’re going to shape the future. And we don’t know what it is. We’ll figure it out together.

Rob: Nobody does. And I love the question, “What do you see three to five years out?” And I see like an absolute black hole. Anybody who answers any differently, especially in what you’re doing is a liar. There is no three to five years out. You can kind of see where the year is going.

Karl: That’s about it. In terms of specifically committing to saying what we are going to make, it doesn’t go beyond a year. We have to adapt.

Rob: How did you convince? I’ve got listeners and viewers around the world and everybody is kind of focusing in now on this internet of things and the world of nodes. Certainly with iOS 7, with iBeacon that they came out, what PayPal is doing, with [inaudible 35:02] Bluetooth. All these guys are [inaudible 35:04] getting into this and we want to be able to talk to all these [inaudible 35:06]. Like, City Field just did this great, great, great thing in New York, home of the New York Mets. With iBeacon, it pushes you information, it talks to you while you’re in there, it knows you’re there, it keeps how many times you’ve been to the game, all that kind of stuff. So, there’s all this focus right now on this space. It’s incredible, but there are very few companies that are really attacking this in the wearables that become household names.
People listening out there, how hard has it been to raise money, to get awareness, to convince investors to do those things to start this company to get it off the ground or conversely was it just so easy that they just started pouring money out and is this the time to be going out there looking for investment?

Karl: So, there’s definitely sort of two very distinct camps we found and I’ll start with the harder one which are the skeptics.

Rob: Yes.

Karl: So, you put this up there and they just think this is crazy.

Rob: Carl, you can name names too. If you want to call it, they don’t have to just say it’s skeptics. It’s John Smith . . .

Karl: Yeah. So, you can find them. They’re there, but I had a very simple answer to those skeptics which is you look at the world we live in today and just look specifically at security. You’ll look at all we do with our passwords, our PIN’s and how that’s just everyday we’re essentially told that this is unmanageable. While there’s some people that are somewhat oblivious to that and just go on.
Think 10, 20 years from now. Are we still going to be where we are today? I mean, I think that’s unimaginable that we could be doing what we’re still doing today you know, 10, 20 years from now. So, if you accept that the world has to change then we’re the first ones to actually propose something that’s actually practical and usable and so I think that’s turned a lot of skeptics around to say, yes. I think you have to accept that the world is going to change on this front and this is actually a pretty neat solution.
So, we were able to win over a lot of skeptics that way, but on the other side there were people that just jumped on board that just got so excited immediately because they can see this convergence of what we’re doing of multiple trends between wearables, identity and security and the whole internet of things connect the devices. We’re positioning ourselves to be at the center of that and the key enabling platform for all of those different trends and [inaudible 37:38] backup. People are very excited.
In the end, it was not a huge hurdle to raise money for this and we got some great investors in the process.

Rob: Where do you see this from an entrepreneur’s standpoint? You’re a first time entrepreneur, right?

Karl: Essentially. I did do consulting before and that’s not the same . . .

Rob: No.

Karl: . . . and that this is certainly a lot more fun.

Rob: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. I hear you on that. So, first time, real entrepreneur building a product out here, where are the business opportunities as a result of what you’re doing? Like, how do you help enable an ecosystem? For example, we talked a little bit about his.
I think certainly what happens with some of these closed loop payment systems like iTunes and PayPal really these guys understand that they have so many hundreds of millions of credit cards on file and identity is going to be key for them to say, listen. You know what? All you have to do is scan your fingerprint and you’ve automatically paid for that product in front of you. So, the whole digital to reality goods piece that comes together is it. So, where do you hope that this takes off and how do you see you guys playing in that.

Karl: You actually hit on something that’s pretty important which is because . . .

Rob: Every once in a while I do. It’s like the listeners fall off their chair and they’re like, what! Did you ask a good question finally?

Karl: Well, what it was . . .

Rob: Please tell me.

Karl: . . . that you know, you talked about payments. Of course payments is one [applicationary] and it’s not the only one we’re looking at, but it has its own nuances and the way the different players play together or don’t play together. Then you go to a different space like healthcare and it’s completely different.

Rob: Mm-hmm.

Karl: That’s actually a big challenge for us because it goes back to the focus. Right? Saying, well you can’t do everything. We have a vision of the future where it goes everywhere, but not necessarily all to the day. For each of those spaces, essentially we do want to be a link that actually transcends those spaces. The idea that you can have your wearables that unlocks your personal devices, but then you go to work and it unlocks the front door of the office, logs into your computer and all that.
Now, that’s not an easy vision to realize and I mean, that’s the other point that you hit on which is building this ecosystem. And my idea on that is one step at a time. And you know, we, one of the decision points that we often make is saying do we concentrate on legacy integration or do we look more towards the future. And I would say, you know you just have to look at who’s buying this. It’s really the doctors…

Rob: Right.

Karl: …so a lot of our focus will be on new kind of Internet connected interconnected things, devices, and enabling integration with those. And in the end it comes down to various strategic partnerships but also having a, putting out very well thought out proposals. Saying well, here’s the technology underlying how we’re going to talk over Bluetooth that’s secure. I’m going to pass my credentials in this way. And we’re doing that work. And hopefully there is some standards that come out of this. But sometimes you’ve got to just do a really good job. And then people will eventually come on board.

Rob: It’s funny, you hit on many points there which is, I hear quite often around, especially around payments. And you know the idea that you focus on in the industry is that, and the way you answered that was really well, is that you focus on enabling the industry and where people use this technology will be determined by consumer poll. Right? By then, polling will be…

Karl: Yes. That’s right. Yes.

Rob: …payments is an interesting thing. Everybody is talking about payments. And it’s such a pain in the….payment is the last thing in a cycle of a thousand things that have to get to that payment. Not only that, from starting with the consumer and the human that’s making the decision to buy the product and then where they buy it, and ultimately payment should be as fluid as cash. And if it isn’t, it can’t, you can’t implement it. If it takes longer than cash or credit cards, then you can’t implement it.

Karl: Yes.

Rob: If it’s too much pain, if you have to give a password, it’s too much. So I really like the idea that I can just walk up and I can use my algorithm, my body’s algorithm to pay at the gas pump.

Karl: Yep.

Rob: I mean, I wrote, when I was 11 or 12 years old, I wrote about something that was called The Midas Touch which was an embeddable…

Karl: Right.

Rob: …right? Which was a little chip in your finger…

Karl: Oh yeah. Oh, you were a missionary. There you go.

Rob: …well, I was crazy. Right? Because people always say well if they just cut my finger off? Right? But, when you think about that, it really is about algorithm and obviously you have to be alive for the chip to work, the finger does too. But when you start to think about those things, it just kind of takes you so far away from what your goal is or your primary directive is and this is the lesson that you learn in all these things, that you want to step up, be the enabler, and let the technologies or let the places where the technologies are going to live be polled from the consumer base, or from the developers, or somebody that finds a market and you just enable that like a good drug that you could be. Right?

Karl: Yeah, definitely. And I think when you’re doing what we’re doing it’s often about picking the battles that make sense to fight because you know, going back to the whole digital payments, it’s a perfect example of why we can’t have nice things. You know? Because there’s so many players in the space that want a piece of the pie that essentially doesn’t even exist yet…

Rob: Yep.

Karl: …when it comes to digital payments, so we tend to not want to go head to head with anybody. Like you said, we’re an enabling the technology so by being at the sort of center of everything, I think what we do, say, on a much simpler level with say unlocking your front door and showing how simple it can be, then you get that organic pull to say well, okay, that was so simple, my door’s always unlocked when I’m there and locked when I’m gone, why can’t my payment system do that as well? And sometimes it just has to go that way. Because we listened to what people want, other players don’t always do it because they have different agendas and that’s just the world that we live in unfortunately.

Rob: Well, so many things go through my head when I think about what you guys are doing. And I think about some of the acquisitions that have come up over the last couple of months. Certainly with Apple buying the fingerprint scanning company and integrating it in. I’m not going to put words in your mouth but that has certainly got to factor heavily into what you guys are doing because if you perfect this, if this is something that there is serious, I mean you say that there has been some good demand for this over the month that you’ve had. Developers are signing on.

I mean, at what point do you look over this and say you know what, we can build a completely, I don’t even know if you can answer this question but we can build a brand, and I don’t think you want to answer this question, but you could build a brand and you could build a consumer product and you could go and get the developers and then eventually maybe get into a million risks and maybe two million, and maybe ten million risks, maybe a hundred million risks, change the form factor, and you can get into many more risks, or many more places. Or you could just say, okay well here’s our price and you know you can get on 400 million devices. Right? You know, Android or iOS are a billion Android devices, right? At what point, I don’t know what kind of question this is but, that’s got to be in your head. As you’re walking through this thing like we could scale this pretty quickly if we had the right partner.

Karl: Right. Right.

Rob: And that partner would look at acquiring us.

Karl: Yeah, no, and I mean when you’re doing a startup and you’re raising money, there’s that question that is always what’s the exit? What’s you’re exit plan?

Rob: Yeah.

Karl: And, but sometimes you just have to defer it because I refer to the wise words of Paul Graham. He’s the founder of Y Combinator, a great incubator, and he said the first thing to think about is build something that people want.

Rob: Right.

Karl: And you know you’re not going to get anywhere if you build something that you think is so strategic to get yourself acquired by this or acquired by that if people don’t want it. And so that’s really what our focus has been and why we’re thinking so much about how the wearable space is going to play out. Not because of who’s going to necessarily want to acquire us, because we want to figure out what people want. And so I think that’s what our primary focus is. And I think if you focus on building what people want, the value is there and you can figure out, you know what we’re going to do five years from now based on again, what the players, where it makes sense for us to sit. And we don’t discount anything. Right now we’re purely focused on getting something that’s awesome that people want to use.

Rob: What has been the reaction? So you said that it’s been very good but are there numbers that you put to that? Or are you not really seeing those numbers? Any reservations, or….yeah, reservations for the device?

Karl: Yeah, so I mean, you can actually see it on our website. There’s over 4500 orders that covers more than 5,000 wrist bands that we sold in the first four months, I’m sorry, four weeks I should say. It felt like four months. It’s four weeks. And so, by all accounts that’s a pretty strong response. But what was actually more interesting too is what’s beyond the pre- orders. The kind of response we got in the media. We knew that there would be interest in the tech media, you know the TechCrunches and Wired and whatnot. But after, a few days after our launch we got a lot of interest in the main stream media. You know this was the CNNs, the BBCs, The New York Times. And that’s when we knew, hey, again, we have something…

Rob: You’ve got the consumers.

Karl: …here. And you talked about whether we build a brand or not and something that happened that was completely unexpected was that we did essentially build a brand and that brand is around identity and what identity means for the consumer. And so when the iPhone launched with the touch ID sensor, we were getting reporters coming back to us to comment on this because they wanted to know what we thought about it. And so that’s a, that’s where we’re positioning ourselves and I think the response to that, it’s been a great conversation. It’s not all positive. There are controversial aspects to it.

Rob: What’s the funniest thing you’ve ever heard about you guys? Like what’s the most controversial piece or somebody who has never, who says this will never work?

Karl: Well, there were certainly, there’s been some misconception for sure. There are people who say, I went to my doctor and my doctor said this is impossible. And what I would say is number one, we were not actually the original inventors of the concept of using ECG as a biometric. There’s a whole body of research there. It goes back more than ten years. It was actually 40 years ago that doctors observed that the ECG has unique characteristics, so this is not new as a concept. So, it’s not based on the beat of your, the rate of your heart beating. It’s based on the shape of your ECG wave with a lot of science behind it. But what we haven’t really talked about at all is privacy.

Rob: Right.

Karl: And everything that’s going on with the NSA and people feel like is anything sacred? Everything I thought was private is not private. And so I think that there’s a lot of concern there and there’s certainly controversy around with what we’re doing in biometrics. But right from the get-go, it’s not as if we thought, oh, hey, wait a minute, we should think about privacy. It was from the beginning. From the beginning of our company, actually. And so we designed it. There’s this concept called privacy by design which was invented by the Privacy Commissioner of Ontario. And it’s a way of designing products from the ground up to make sure that they are completely privacy protected. And so we expect the privacy question but we’re there. We’re users of this technology. We don’t want to be giving something to someone who can track us. We’ve addressed all of those things.

Rob: What do you hope comes from all of this? What I mean by all of that is, you know there is a lot of conversation around preventative medicine, right? So tell me a week before I’m going to have a heart attack that I’m going to have a heart attack, right? Tell me when I’m too stressed. You know, I do meditation, let me know when my heart rate is at a certain level. Let me turn on my nest or let me unlock my, what do you hope happens as a result of the thing you are starting here?

Karl: Right. So at a really simple level…

Rob: Yeah?

Karl: ..you know what we want to do is remove all of those friction points throughout your day that involves using your identity and you probably don’t even realize it how much it adds up, you know? It’s those, it’s the keys in your pocket, you know? It’s almost archaic. You look at your wallet and pretty, 99% of the things in your wallet are just about identity. Whether it’s your loyalty cards or your credit cards, they’re just different ways that you are making your identity be known.
So at a really simple level we want to say that’s the past. You know? We’re bringing a new future there. But going beyond that, you know the health applications and you know the personal fitness and all those things, that’s one of those, it’s not our focus and I think that others are going to be doing a better job of figuring that out than us because this idea of all this actionable information, I think the problem is that we don’t even have a good handle on human psychology in terms of actually, you know nobody’s actually figured out how to make ourselves healthier through this. Like are all of these like fitness trackers making people healthier? I’m not sure anybody’s actually measured that, right?

Rob: No, that’s not important. That’s not important.

Karl: Of course not. So perhaps we’re almost a little bit too scientific about it. We’re focused on the identity space. It’s, this whole quantified self thing is again very early and I think it’s, you hear some sort of in-the-market sort of say at the conferences, this sort of the next level is much more about analytics and actionable information rather than just what is effectively a dumper of information.

Rob: I’m with you on this. There’s nothing, there’s no tangible reason. I talked to a lot of people who at one point had a wrist band or some kind of quantified self device, and then the battery ran out or they forgot to sync it or they lost it or it went through the washer machine and then it was over.

Karl: Yeah.

Rob: Right, they could dismiss it that quickly. It was $100 bucks, in and out, disposable. Right?

Karl: Yep.

Rob: But when you start to talk about identity, when you start to talk about, people ask me all the time well how do I make my company into a success? And I say exactly as you say, well you build something people want. Not only what they want but they become accustomed to using it and they can’t live without. Because that’s the only way you’re going to build a sustainable business. And I think that identity, for me right now, for that security, for the identity in an anonymous fashion but not anonymous to me, I’d do it. Think about opening my car door without actually to have to click on a button because that stupid battery in the remote is dead. Or opening the door when my hands are full of groceries. Or turning on my lights or paying a bill, or just crossing a border. Right? Or validating for medicine. Or whatever it might be. But I think that that starts there.
And once you get used to it one time and you start using it, and it becomes part of your life, that’s really when you know you’ve got something going and it’s the most important thing. The rest of the stuff, these things? Nah. You know what?

Karl: Yeah?

Rob: They’re a dime a dozen.

Karl: Yeah.

Rob: That’s the challenge that I have.

Karl: Yeah.

Rob: That’s why I like what you guys are doing.

Karl: Well, thank you. And I agree. Our dream is essentially that you would be putting on our technology. You’d forget about it but the day that say somebody stole it off of you, you would, while it wouldn’t work for that person because it’s secure, you would feel the pain of not having it because it really did make your life a lot easier and you’d say oh, my god, I don’t want to go back to five, ten years ago when I didn’t have this.

Rob: When I’d have to type in a password.

Karl: I know. It’s like cavemen. It’s great.

Rob: And I might as well just bang my head on a wall. You know?

Karl: I’m sure that’s a biometric.

Rob: Yes. Exactly. The force and everything like that. What do you use? Do you use anything other than the Nymi? Did you play around with all this technology?

Karl: Yeah. So I mean, before this, I mean because we’re still writing the software for the Nymi, I’m using a password manager. I’m very security conscious, and certainly compared to the average person, I’ll take a little bit more inconvenience to have that security. But, man, it’s a pain. It works okay on my computers. I have it synched across my computers, but then on the mobile. And because I always have at least 16 digit passwords and so I have to do the copy and paste thing and I’m switching applications and it’s like, oh, it forgot it. Well, I still have to log in to the password manager, which, I have something like a 24 digit pass phrase to it. Yeah, it’s broken.

Rob: I get nervous when I pull up my banking app on my phone. And it asks for that it’s in a network that I’ve never logged in from or somebody else’s Wi-Fi. So, it asks that security question and like, I panic, because I know that if I get it wrong, they’re going to freeze my account until I call somebody.

Karl: Yeah. Oh, that’s it. And then I have to talk to a person. It’s awful.

Rob: Yeah, I don’t want to talk to anybody. I just want to get access to it. And then they’re like, well, sir, what was the answer? I’m like, I don’t remember. Like I always say, okay, well I guess I won’t do my banking there. I’ll just wait till I get somewhere where it’s a network that I’ve logged in before. And that’s an inconvenience. So, just think about the things, the applications of what you guys are doing, and I can’t wait to have this. When do they ship?

Karl: We’re looking around the April, May time frame to ship it. But before then, we’re going to be doing a lot of developer engagement. There will be opportunities for developers to get early units to develop applications.

Rob: Wicked. So, we should them to just Get Nymi. Get N-Y-M-I dot com, and all the information is up there?

Karl: Yeah, absolutely. We’re actually going to be launching our developer community soon, so sign up. It’s one huge conversation that we’re having.

Rob: That is wicked. Karl, thank you so much for doing this. There’s so much more that I want to talk to you about. I’m going to have you on around the product launch, if that’s okay. I’m going to have you back on.

Karl: I’d love to.

Rob: So, around that April, May time frame, I’d love to talk to you and even before, a little bit before, because I’d love to see how this has progressed and the feedback that you’ve received and the developer community, how they’ve embraced this. I think it would be very interesting to take this episode against the one in a quarter or two to see how things are going. Are you up for that?

Karl: Absolutely. I’d love to.

Rob: All right, I’m going to hold you to it, because we’re filming this and now you’ve got a whole audience that are like, okay, I can’t wait. So that’s in the April time frame, April, May time frame.

Karl: Yep.

Rob: All right, so go to GetNymi.com G-E-T-N-Y-M-I .com and you can pre- order, which I implore you to do. You can get some more information. You can sign up to be a developer for this great, great, great new platform. And, the fact that this Canadian should not be lost on all of you, because Canada is great. Canadian entrepreneurs are great. Canadian engineers, Canadian researchers, everything about Canada is so great, so start looking up. If you are down there in the States, look up and see this great country called Canada. Smart, smart, smart people up here, and Karl is obviously one of them, and his time. Karl, thank you for doing this. I really appreciate your time.

Karl: Thanks for having me. It was fun.

Rob: Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, please, please, please accept my thanks for listening to this or participating in any way that you can. If you wouldn’t mind, my currency, and I often say this, my currency is a nice little rating iTunes store, wherever you download this fine podcast, or comment to me. Just reach out, [email protected], and I will respond. Thank you once again for listening. Karl, thank you once again for participating. We’ll see you next time on UNTETHER.tv.

Karl: Thanks, bye-bye.

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About Karl Martin
Karl Martin Nymi Since his days of building circuits and robots in school, Karl has always been interested in creating technology for the future. Most recently it’s been developing biometric and cryptographic systems as part of Bionym. His ultimate goal is to build things that people never thought possible, starting with the Nymi. Karl has a B.A.Sc. degree in Engineering Science, and M.A.Sc. and Ph.D. degrees in Electrical and Computer Engineering, all from the University of Toronto.

About the author

Rob Woodbridge

I'm Rob, the founder of UNTETHER.tv and I've spent 14 years immersed in the mobile and pervasive computing world. During this great time I've helped some of the most innovative companies grow their business through mobile. If you are in need of a mobile business advisor or coach, connect with me here to get things rolling.

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