San Fran Bay Area Firms Tap the Deep Draw of Homeland Security Market

A4, SafeView others grow like crazy as security explodes into a multi-billion industry

Four years after Sept. 11, 2001, Bay Area technology companies have secured millions of dollars in funding to produce new technologies to protect the nation from future terrorist attacks. They range from machines that automatically detect airborne pathogens like anthrax to systems that move passengers through airport check points faster and more efficiently.

The once overlooked, tiny security technology market has exploded into a multibillion-dollar industry. International spending on homeland security -- including the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the private sector and foreign governments -- is expected to reach $42.4 billion this year, according to calculations by the Civitas Group, a consulting firm specializing in homeland security.

But Bay Area businesses still face hurdles: a bureaucratic maze as they seek grants and contracts; protests about privacy rights; a government slow to make up its mind; and much more competition than before. For some start-ups, they've found more success doing business in other countries than with Uncle Sam. And many of the dollars spent so far have gone toward hiring more employees, not to improving technology.

"In 2001, it was a sprint. In 2005, it's a marathon," said Grant Evans, CEO of Sunnyvale-based A4Vision Inc., which develops 3D facial recognition technology. "People thought it'd be 'ka-ching, ka-ching.' (But) you need to keep running and you have to pace yourself."

A4Vision began about five years in Russia with 3D technology, but no real purpose. It considered applying the technology to help doctors with plastic surgery, but decided to pursue the security technology market after Sept. 11.

A4Vision's system takes a picture of a person's face, transforming it in just a few seconds into thousands of points that look like a mesh grid molded around the face. It measures the key features: the length of the nose, the width between the eyes, the curve of the cheekbone, then stores the data, along with the 3D image, into a database. In less than a second, a person passing through a security checkpoint can have their face scanned and their identification checked.

"This type of technology is 'Beam-me-up-Scotty,' 'Star Trek' stuff," Evans said. It is so exact, he added, that it can tell the difference between identical twins and catch a person wearing a mask.

Nevertheless, A4Vision faces daunting competition, including other types of biometric technology, or technology that uses characteristics such as fingerprints, the iris and voice patterns.. The startup landed a $1.6 million contract with the Department of Defense in a joint project with Unisys, and its machines are in use to protect employee-only areas at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and the Salt Lake City International Airport. But with nearly a dozen formidable competitors, by Evans' count, A4Vision has also lost out on some contract bids.

Ask SafeView Inc. CEO Rick Rowe where its systems have been shipped and he'll rattle off a list of countries: Japan, Holland, Israel, Mexico, Amsterdam, and soon Japan, Spain, Singapore, Thailand and India.

Conspicuously missing from the list is the United States, even though SafeView's technology was originally developed out of a government laboratory and funded by the Federal Aviation Administration. Shortly after Sept. 11, Santa Clara-based SafeView licensed holographic imaging technology from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and applied it to a portal system. It resembles the metal detectors that passengers step through at airport security checkpoints, but instead of detecting metal, it takes a picture of the person, identifying whether the person is carrying a concealed gun, bomb or other weapons.

The machine, which can check up to 420 people per hour, compared with 120 to 180 people per hour through the metal detectors at most airports, is in use right now in Iraq by the U.S. military. It has also been tested by some federal agencies, and SafeView is hopeful that it will find a home in the mainland as well. But critics continue to raise privacy concerns and plans to roll it out have stalled.

This content continues onto the next page...