Imagine mail without postage stickers, airplane luggage without bag tags, and paper money that’s authenticated not by ink or watermarks but the fibers of the paper itself. That’s the vision behind Alitheon, a Bellevue, Wash.-based startup that raised $11.6 million as part of a seed round.
Alitheon’s technology, called FeaturePrint, uses regular cameras. But instead of taking photos, the system creates a kind of digital fingerprint for each individual object. The result is a new way of authenticating physical objects with machines — one that could replace barcodes, RFID tags and QR codes.
The FeaturePrint is essentially an “immutable digital link between the physical object and the digital world,” said Alitheon CEO Scot Land. Like biometrics, this physical identity can’t be stolen or shared.
The company was co-founded by chief scientist David Ross, a mathematician who spent the better part of three decades with RAF Technology, a leading supplier of mail sorting technology. He also founded Calera Recognition Systems, an early and influential optical character recognition program for scanned documents.
Ross co-founded Alitheon with Land, a former Microsoft director who also co-founded InVision Technologies and was a portfolio manager at Encompass LLC.
In one experiment, Alitheon “took $100 bills and washed them with bleach until there was no printing left on the bills,” Land said. In the end, the system was still able to single out each bill by recognizing hundreds of thousands of unique features on the fibers of the paper.
Alitheon is also able to spot objects at real-world speeds. The company is trialing a tracking system for airlines that identifies luggage at a rate of two meters per second.
But there are other, more pressing applications for Alitheon’s technology. Passport readers could become impossible to fool. Within the military, FeaturePrint could confirm the authenticity of semiconductors and other mission-critical parts. It might also track and authenticate pharmaceuticals or find blood diamonds and illegally mined gold within a supply chain.
“Barcodes were great in 1984,” said Land, but the problem is that modern supply chains have set the world awash in fakes. Within consumer goods, FeaturePrint could be used to combat counterfeit goods that now comprise around 3 percent of international trade.
Former INRIX chief financial officer Jim Beach is the chief financial officer of Alitheon. The startup’s vice president of engineering is Brian Crowley, who was CEO of BSquare and president of Symbio. Alitheon has issued 31 patents and is looking to grow its trials into commercial applications.