Element wants to give identity to the whole world, raising $12M Series A

Who are you? That’s both an existential question, and also a very practical administrative concern. Today, identity is often exchanged through the use of government ID cards and official paperwork, but what happens when someone loses that paperwork or it is destroyed? Or, as is often the case in many countries around the world, a citizen never received the paperwork to begin with?

Element wants to completely change the way banks, hospitals, and other service providers work with their customers by providing a platform for decentralized biometric identity. The company’s software runs on any mobile device, and using the device’s camera, it can identify a user’s face, palm, and fingerprints to create a verified match. Users have options on which modality they want to use.

Biometric identification is a tough machine learning application, so it shouldn’t be surprising that Element, which was formed in 2012, was co-founded by Adam Perold, a Stanford-educated product designer, and Yann LeCun, a famed machine learning researcher. LeCun was the progenitor of convolution neural nets, which today form one of the foundational theories for deep learning AI. He is now chief science advisor for the company, having taken a role as Director of AI Research at Facebook in New York while continuing his professorship at NYU.

Element is announcing a $12 million Series A round, led by PTB Ventures and GDP Ventures, with David Fields of PTB and On Lee of GDP joining the company’s board of directors. Earlier investors of the company included Pandu Sjahrir, Scott Belsky, Box Group, and Recruit Strategic Partners.

While technologies like Apple’s Touch ID and Face ID systems have popularized biometric identity, neither of these were around when Element got started. The early years of the company were devoted to solving critical technical challenges. Wireless connectivity can be limited in many developing countries, which meant that identities had to be local to the device in order to be useful. That also meant that the platform couldn’t be a cloud infrastructure solution, since identity information had to be processed on the device.

Furthermore, given the quality of hardware available, data had to be extremely compressed to be useful, and the machine learning algorithms couldn’t use too much compute power since a low-powered Android device wouldn’t be able to execute an identity match quickly enough to provide a good user experience.

That’s where LeCun’s deep expertise in neural nets, and particularly in areas like optical character recognition, came in handy. The Element team managed to reduce the amount of data required to store the identity of a single person down to about two kilobytes, according to the company.

The next challenge the company faced in building out its platform was security. Identity data, particularly biometrics, is a major security challenge, but it was exacerbated by the fact that devices would often be shared between users. A single device at a bank, for instance, might service thousands of users, all of which need independent, secured data. The company said that these security challenges have been designed into the core of the system.

Ultimately, the company’s platform lives as an SDK behind the mobile apps of its partners. It provides not only the identity layer itself, but also a secure data infrastructure that allows records such as bank accounts and medical files to be connected to the underlying identity.

Element is targeting the developing world, and Perold tole me he spends more than half of his time traveling to Southeast Asia and Africa building partnerships and doing research on how the company’s technology can improve critical social services. Among the company’s signed partnerships is Telekom Indonesia, which as the service provider for 180 million subscribers, is one of the key connections between people and their identity in that fast-growing economy.

Another partnership formed by the company is with the Global Good Fund, a joint venture between Bill Gates and Intellectual Ventures. That project works to create better biometric identities for newborns and infants, which is critical for health outcomes. The company is working with icddr,b and the Angkor Hospital for Children in Cambodia to build out the program.

In addition to the lead investors, the company received strategic venture capital investments from Bank BCA (via Central Capital Ventura), Bank BRI via its venture arm, Telkom Indonesia (via MDI Ventures), and Maloekoe Ventures.

Correction: The Global Good Fund is a joint venture with Bill Gates, not the Gates Foundation.