Nick Kozak for the Toronto Star
Case Studies

Toronto startup taps your heartbeat to revolutionize security systems

Vital Stats
Karl Martin and Foteini Agrafioti
388 Parliament St, Suite 200, Toronto, Ontario
3 years
Wearable technology that uses a wearer’s unique heartbeat pattern to identify them

Your heartbeat is as unique as your fingerprint. And if a pair of Toronto entrepreneurs have their way, it could be that lub-dub, not a finger scan or even eye scan, that one day identifies you.

Karl Martin and Foteini Agrafioti — two computer engineering PhD graduates from the University of Toronto — have created an algorithm that identifies each person’s particular heartbeat pattern, measured by an electrocardiogram, or ECG.

That led to the launch of their company, Bionym, in 2011, and the creation of Nymi: a bracelet that uses the wearer’s unique heartbeat pattern to identify them, essentially eliminating the need for passwords, identification cards and keys.

“We developed a system that was essentially a similar kind of accuracy to a fingerprint,” says Martin, now the company’s CEO. Neither method is infallible, Martin explains, but an ECG reading has some advantages over the fingerprint method.

“Number one: you don’t leave your ECG lying around everywhere like you do a fingerprint,” he says.

The fact that your ECG is an internal function makes it difficult to replicate, too, leading to greater security for a device like Nymi. Avoiding the need for fingerprint sensors also bipasses the problem of a malfunctioning sensor, he says (which plagued some iPhone 5S devices last year).

Relying on Bluetooth and motion sensor technology, the Nymi can be used to unlock your computer as soon as you get to your office or pop open your trunk as you carry a load of groceries to your car. When it comes inventive applications for this new technology, Martin is even looking to the sky.

“When you travel, especially flying, you have to prove your identity so many times. We’re looking to make that really seamless,” Martin explains. He says the technology could also be adopted in the healthcare industry or by retailers and could even take the place of debit and credit cards.

While having a lot of potential uses for their product may seem like a strength, it can be overwhelming for a start-up. With Nymi set to be released later this year, Martin says the biggest challenge Bionym faces right now is trying to define their focus.
“There’s a lot of companies, from smart device manufacturers, to automotive, to retail and hospitality, that want to work with us. As a startup, focus is always key,” he says. “We’re at the stage right now where we’re picking which ones we’re going to be working with over the next year or so.”

That kind of clear aim will be key, agrees Martin Sumner-Smith, a senior advisor at the business development organization MaRS.

“It’s hugely significant,” Sumner-Smith says, adding if startups spread themselves too thin, nobody wins. He said working on too many applications for the Nymi at once means they won’t be able to dig deep into what’s needed to make it useful for any single industry.

“If you do that, you don’t solve problems,” he warns.

For Nymi’s creators, knowing they need to sharpen their aim is one thing; implementing that is another. Mark Evans, a Toronto-based startup marketer and consultant, says they need to do their homework.

“One of the biggest challenges for many startups is focus and the reality is that they’ve got limited resources,” Evans said.

“They’ve got to get bang for their buck. They really have to figure out where they’re going to get the most traction.”

Martin says the team at Bionym has been researching industries and are trying to narrow down their focus to only a handful of viable options.

“Obviously we need to have our ears open to see what makes sense to the market,” he says.

They’ve expanded their team, including hiring Andrew D’Souza — former chief operating officer of San Francisco tech company Top Hat — as their new president in order to meet the demands of defining their focus. They also run a developer program where over 6,000 solo and small business developers offer up their skills to work on applications that would utilize the Nymi.

“For us, that’s also a channel where we can get ideas,” Martin says, but he adds they’re not afraid of turning down ideas as well, including venturing into corporate security.

“We’ll probably go there eventually, but if we go there first, I think people are going to have a sense that this is something being imposed on them, (that) it’s being very Big Brother-ish tracking them,” he says. “That’s really not our vision of where this product fits in the world. It’s about putting them in control of their identity.”


As Interviewed by: Rosemary Westwood

This is a really cool technology. But the creators are at risk of being inventors, and not innovators. Inventors create amazing technologies, like this heartbeat algorithm. Innovators make it commercially viable. The biometrics industry is hot and expected to grow exponentially in coming years, dominated by mega companies like Apple, which is patenting technology including heart rate monitor to integrate into smart devices, like smart watches. Nymi also targets the limited real estate of the wrist, and it’s not clear why someone would chose this product, with one function, over a smart watch. Bionym has a few choices: they can target the high end security market, companies with information to protect that requires a tailored solution, and which might be worried about things like false fingerprints. Or, they go back into original plan and create a device more likely to compete with Apple. But I would recommend they find a smart watch maker with a global presence and partner with them to quickly bring a product to the market.

by Neil Wolff - Ryerson

For a startup, it’s key to make the first entrance into the market a benefit, and not a burden in eyes of the consumer. If you can whizz your way through the airport with this bracelet, that’s massive. Focus for a startup is also key, because it’s so easy to get sidetracked and spread too thin. So focus on an industry that a) matches the owner’s ethical stance, and he’s pretty clear on what he does and doesn’t want his reputation to stand for, and b) is in line with the corporate strategy. How do they see sustainable growth into the future? Make sure first entrance is aligned with that. And find someone that can offer support: human resources support in the form of a team to help Bionym make it delivers what the client wants and needs, and perhaps financial and technical support. Some of these large corporations have all that, and it’s not unusual for startups to have access to those teams. Don’t give up on other applications and markets — but run them by the same evaluation criteria and don’t implement until the first strategy takes off.

by Deirdre Fitzpatrick - GBC

Bionym is a unique, cutting-edge product with clear competitive advantages to alternatives. Determining a product’s ideal customer — in this case, the appropriate target market — is a process called ‘STP’—segmenting, targeting, and positioning. Segmenting requires Bionym to look at the market as a whole in order to identify the most likely or profitable categories of buyers. Targeting involves identifying the few (usually one) market segments the company would like to focus on: this is typically based on the segment’s profit potential or probable purchase intent. Finally, positioning is about creating purposeful messaging and meaning about the product’s value proposition that will answer to that segment’s needs. While these three steps sound simple, they can be quite complex. Ultimately however, if STP is done correctly, the company has a known focus (target), has identified current and potential customers (segmenting), and has developed clear messaging and meaning (positioning) about the product (supply) in the eyes of users (demand).

by Brynn Winegard - SEEC