How Athena Security found a brand new market in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic

Jerry Bowles Profile picture for user jbowles August 12, 2020
In the face of the lingering pandemic, the key to success-even survival-for many businesses is the ability to quickly respond and adapt to new opportunities.

athena detection temperature
Athena temperature detection (screenshot from company news )

If you're looking for innovation-under-pressure stories during these rocky times, consider Athena Security, the Austin-headquartered startup founded in 2018 by former Revel Systems founders Lisa Falzone and Chris Ciabarra.  Six months ago the company was focused mainly on an enterprise gun detection camera security system that uses computer vision and object detection and is, it says, 99+% accurate in spotting guns, weapons and criminal acts; all without collecting any personal information. 

When the pandemic began in January, Athena realized quickly that by adding a sensitive thermal imaging camera to its existing gun detection system it could  provide skin temperature reading that allowed companies to screen up to 2,000 single-file visitors per hour with potential COVID fevers. Since higher temperature is one of the first symptoms of COVID-19, these cameras warn the person that they could have the virus and encourages them to take serious steps to self-quarantine.  Co-founder and CEO Lisa Falzone told me: 

We realized we could easily integrate with our gun detection system and a local co-working space wanted temperature detection which took the idea from concept to product development immediately.  

Coincidentally, we were already working with thermal technology for our concealed weapon threat detection product and we could easily use our alert software platform to round out the offering.  Temperature detection, it turns out, is actually easier to accomplish than our gun detection solution, making it a quick transition to being able to tackle the pandemic at hand.  What resulted was a contact free temperature screening solution accurate within .3 degrees Celsius while tracking no personal info and using no facial recognition. 

In early August, Athena announced a partnership with workplace solutions company Envoy, to equip offices with the system which, it claims, is the most accurate temperature screening on the market to help bring employees back to the office safely. The temperature screening camera measures multiple points on the subjects' face near the eye, called the inner canthus, to determine temperatures accurate within .3 degrees Celsius. 

Pre-configured to 99.5 F, an automatic alarm notification is sent as individuals walk single file past the camera capable of pre-screening up to 2,000 people per hour. The system collects no personal info, is contact-free and those who register high temperatures are then screened by an FDA approved medical thermometer. I asked Falzone for more details:   

Our camera gets the color of 98.6 degrees from the HSRP unit (heat source reference point or black body).  Our system then pinpoints people and then their faces then their eyes as the eyes are the hottest temperature on the outside of the body.  Having a top of the line camera is critical to detect a high temperature that has less than a 1.8 degree difference.  We also use the ET (elevated temperature) technique to determine which technologies worked and which did not--more info on doing an ET test here.

After we get the face and eyes from the technology, we take the temperature of each pixel on the face which is over 1,000 different readings.  We then send normal or high temperature alerts to our server in the cloud or on prem options to stay in compliance with local and state rules as people go back to work and school.

Athena Security has received $5.5 million in seed funding led by Pathfinder, the early stage investment vehicle of San Francisco-based venture capital firm Founders Fund. The deal was also backed by about 40 angel investors. 

As to where the company goes from here, Falzone said:  

Temperature detection was an addition, not a pivot. We'll be going back hard, detecting guns, especially with gun violence as prevalent or even more prevalent than before the pandemic. Who knew that the virus and temperature detection would be categorized as threat detection and that the virus could be more deadly than a gun?  Today, one person's health is everyone else's health, similar to brandishing a gun, everyone is affected by one another's actions or inaction, but a virus can be just like firing a gun in some ways.

Our ability to make technologies user friendly and effective and to grow at scale fit very well with changing gears from stopping mass shootings to stopping the coronavirus.  We're glad we could make that addition and do it ethically as with our gun detection system.

My take

This is one of those good news/bad news stories.  On the one hand, the Athena Security story demonstrates that a couple of veteran entrepreneurs had the agility, vision and the right technology to recognize a new kind of security opportunity and pounce on it decisively.  When life gives you lemons, make lemonade as the old adage goes. 

On the other hand, it's kind of sad to think that the workplace of the future, or any public space for that matter, requires that everyone who enters it be electronically frisked for guns and possible contagion.  Although Athena has made the data it collects as safe and anonymous as possible, it adds another layer of surveillance to a world is which private spaces are rapidly disappearing. Is this the price we are willing to pay for everyone's safety? Only time will tell. 

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