As technology improves and innovations make data collection and analysis easier and less costly, the line between what should be private and what shouldn’t be blurs. In anticipation of continued technological advances, both governments and companies are taking steps forward to meet the public’s demands for privacy. As of early 2020, more than 60 jurisdictions globally — representing 10% of the world’s population — have enacted privacy and data protection laws. Analysts predict that by 2023, this figure will hit 65% of the world’s population. By 2022, an estimated 1 million organizations will have appointed a privacy officer.
There is another approach to addressing this problem while ensuring data collection and analysis — build systems with the fundamental aim of protecting said data. Zenus wants to accomplish this without sacrificing the information that end users desire so much. The company’s smart cameras use facial recognition technology while maintaining a strong level of privacy. We interview Zenus co-founder and CEO Panos Moutafis about the importance of ethical artificial intelligence in Zenus’s technology.
Note: This interview was conducted over phone and email. It has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Can you give us a brief elevator pitch for your company?
If you are a business owner (or marketer) you need to maximize three metrics to be successful — Number of (i) impressions (views), (ii) engagements (actions), and (iii) conversions (purchases). Tracking these metrics in physical spaces is tedious and cost prohibitive.
The Zenus smart cameras offer an easy way to capture information such as foot traffic, demographics (sex/age), positive sentiment, and more. Our software collects aggregate statistics without any personal identification — this is what we call ethical artificial intelligence.
We raised $1.2M from reputable investors such as Capital Factory and Rice University to develop our vertically integrated system and test our technologies in 20+ countries.
What inspired you to take the leap and build this company?
I originally came to the United States to earn my Ph.D. in Computer Science and become a professor. My plans regarding professorship changed when the National Science Foundation (NSF) selected me to lead a team for the Innovation Corps (I-Corps) program.
We spoke with hundreds of people in the industry, documented those interviews, and evaluated the societal impact and business opportunity.
This was the catalyst for creating Zenus. The decision was a no-brainer.
What past experiences prepared you to start, build, and lead your company?
In early stage companies like ours, technical risk is often a deciding factor for future success. But we nailed this down through many iterations and deployments.
On a personal level, I had to overcome extreme adversity. There were times I had to skip meals, and there were nights I had to sleep on the floor in public spaces.
It took an insane amount of hard work and perseverance to get to this level. It also took a lot of people along the way who helped without expecting anything in return.
I owe it to them to do things right and keep pushing all the way. It is my duty and calling.
What is your vision for the future of the industry you are operating in?
There is a big focus on user experience and personalization across market segments. The ability to measure and understand people’s behavior will be a game-changer for out-of-home experiences. This includes common activities such as shopping at a retail store or going to a restaurant.
Who is on your team and how did you come together?
My co-founder, Rakshak, met me through a mutual friend. He had launched other startups in the past and loves building artificial intelligence systems, so we naturally clicked.
We assembled the rest of the team through our network and people going through our diligent application process. Mary is our marketing specialist, and Kaleb is the team’s full-stack software engineer. More people also help us out on a part-time basis.
We invested a lot in our culture and continue to nurture it — one cannot force this. Our goal is to ensure everyone is heard and [that] people feel respected and safe. This is what makes a team stick together.
Do you have any competition, if so, how do you differentiate?
Competition demonstrates there is an actual market need. Facial analysis offers more metrics such as demographics and sentiment compared to Bluetooth and RFID technologies. More importantly, we can update the software remotely and introduce new features which offer our clients further value.
Our smart cameras process the video feed locally (edge computing). This reduces data transmission 64,000 times while keeping data safer. Edge processing also saves thousands of dollars in monthly cloud processing costs while powering live dashboard updates. It is the only palm-sized solution we know which covers thousands of square feet and processes hundreds of faces on the edge.
What does your business model look like?
We work with both end customers and resellers. Some clients come directly to our website, whereas others are on-boarded by our channel partners.
Our technology is both exciting and useful. Decision makers (our users) pay for the insights they obtain. Hence, we offer on a monthly subscription for accessing our analytics dashboard.
What brought you to equity crowdfunding and how do you intend to use the money you raise this round to scale the business?
People in our network (friends, clients, partners) had always asked us if they could invest. When StartEngine reached out to us, we loved the idea. Because of the nature of our business, I also liked the concept of disclosing all material information. It creates trust, which is important.
Most of the funds will be devoted to marketing and sales. We feel extremely confident about the product so now is the time to monetize. It is a good place to be as a deep tech startup.
What do you want potential investors to know about you and/or your company?
Life is not a zero-sum game. It is possible to create win-win situations for everyone involved. Likewise, ethical facial analysis is not just a marketing term — it is our design philosophy.
We went to great lengths to develop the product by implementing privacy by design. In addition, we turned down unpalatable sales opportunities to stay true to our values: (i) protect people’s privacy, (ii) practice radical honesty, and (iii) do things right.
These values are rarely easy to follow. But they do help us sleep well at night. And sleep is critical when you work 12+ hours per day, six days a week.
As you think about the business 5-10 years down the road, what do you see exit opportunities looking like? have you set any future goals for the company?
Zenus has a vibrant aura which speaks to people. This is rare for B2B companies and a great indicator of how high we can climb.
We studied companies which generate tens of millions in annual revenue despite technical and market limitations. Our product captures rich information, and we continuously evolve it via remote software updates. There are also a ton of use cases and opportunities for market expansion.
I believe Zenus is positioned exceptionally well to capture an enormous market share and achieve an even better exit potential.
We at KingsCrowd are excited to see where Panos and his team take the company. Zenus is currently raising on StartEngine.
About: Olivia Strobl
Olivia comes to KingsCrowd with a background in venture capital and technology. She spent time at Glasswing Ventures, an AI-focused venture fund in Boston, before joining the KingsCrowd team. There she helped develop machine learning algorithms for the opportunity qualification of preseed and seed-stage startup companies. Prior to her time at Glasswing, Olivia worked in a lab studying the neural correlates of attention. She holds a degree in Neuroscience from Wellesley College.