Skip to main content

From Skydiving to Biometrics: One Entrepreneur's Story

nsf, national science foundation, sciencelives, biometrics, startup, Mary Haskett, biometric system, tactical information systems, Iraq, forensics, Alex Kilpatrick, activate, business, entrepreneur, ACTiVATE Series, ACTiVATE
Mary Haskett and Alex Kilpatrick in Iraq as part of work on a biometric access program. (Image credit: Sean Hardaway)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

After Mary Haskett earned her degree in applied mathematics, she took an unusual career path and became a skydiving instructor. Little did she realize that her choices would lead her to work on biometric projects in a war zone and ultimately become a serial entrepreneur.

That early experience running a small skydiving business led her to the NSF-funded ACTiVATE® program, an entrepreneurship training program that teaches technical and business skills to help women create their own companies. The program was invaluable in helping Haskett take her focus area and determine if it was a viable business idea, as well as providing guidance for business-plan writing, fund-seeking, legal and intellectual property issues, and a host of other critical business areas.

After her second company was acquired by a defense contractor, Haskett decided to launch her third company along with co-founder Alex Kilpatrick: Tactical Information Systems, a company focused on using biometric technology as a low-cost, easy-to-use identification service. Learn more about Haskett as she answers the 10 ScienceLives questions below.

Name: Mary Haskett Age: 45 Institution: Tactical Information Systems Field of Study: Biometrics and Entrepreneurship

What inspired you to choose this field of study? It's a pretty crooked path! I started out studying applied mathematics and computer science. After I got my undergraduate degree, I did just enough programming to know it wasn't for me. The interesting part was figuring out how to do something — once I had it figured out, I didn't really want to do it again — plus, I learned that I liked working with people and having a broader focus than you generally get as a programmer.

I had been a skydiving instructor all through college and I liked teaching — so much so that I eventually went back to college and got an advanced degree in instructional technology. My focus was on adult learning and it's an area I still find fascinating.

I started a company that developed custom training software and we started working for a defense contractor doing training for biometric systems being deployed in the Middle East. They eventually acquired my company and I got even deeper into biometrics.

Now I've started a new company called Tactical Information Systems and our goal is to take biometric technology and make it available to a much broader range of applications.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? Success is mostly a matter of starting something and not quitting. I used to quit at the first setback, but I realized that everyone gets knocked down by life every once in a while. The people who succeed are the ones who learn to quickly pick themselves back up and keep going.

What was your first scientific experiment as a child? I did an experiment in school where I was studying the effect of the phosphates in laundry detergent on the water supply. Instead of the expected results, in the end all of my samples showed the same level of algae growth.

I knew what the results should have been and I asked my teacher how I could "fix it." I was astounded when she explained that the data was what it was and that I needed to just report my data and leave it at that. The experience helped me to better understand the scientific method and how hard it is to be objective about data in a way I had not understood before.

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher? I love my job. I love the surprises and I enjoy the wide range of things I get to do and the phenomenally smart and interesting people I get to work with. I'm usually either working in a really boring office or I'm in a really interesting location, where I've gone through several layers of security to gain access and I'm not allowed to take photographs. It's always something different.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher? I think it's really important to observe and notice — not just what you are focused on, but everything, as much as you can. You really just never know what is going to lead you in the next direction you need to go. You have to have a goal, of course, but you also just need to be open to the possibilities that you aren't expecting or thinking about. I never expected to be working in biometrics. I never looked for or expected half of the things that have turned out to be amazing and wonderful.

What are the societal benefits of your research? Our research is in the area of biometrics — the characteristics of a person that uniquely identify them as an individual, such as fingerprints, irises (the colored part of the eye) and facial images. Specifically, we concentrate on the application of large-scale biometric matching to a generic elastic computing cloud. Biometrics already provides a wealth of benefits to society.

For example, forensics examination uses fingerprints, face images (from cameras), latent prints and palm prints to identify individuals who have committed crimes. Fingerprints are used to positively identify individuals who need to access high-security areas, or provide background checking for people in sensitive positions, such as those gaining security clearances, firearms permits or financial operations.

However, biometric technology is still a specialized area, requiring a large amount of expertise in order to deploy effectively. Our research concentrates on bringing biometric technology to a wider audience by simplifying deployment and hosting large-scale matching operations in the cloud.

That allows a much wider segment of society to take advantage of the technology, such as small business operators, those identifying lost children, small police department operations, and even long-distance athletes who get injured while training in remote areas. Our vision is to make biometric technology as ubiquitous and as easily available as the Internet is today.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher? I'm very influenced by the "lean startup" methodology created by Steve Blank and built on by Eric Ries and others. It's been described as the application of the lean manufacturing process as taught by Edward Deming, but applied to entrepreneurship, yet I think of it as using the scientific method. The overall goal is to reduce waste and inefficiency by making a hypothesis, testing it in the fastest and lowest cost method possible, and then making decisions based on the data collected.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most? One of the most interesting things I've learned is how incredibly good people are at recognizing familiar faces compared to a computer. People do it so well and so naturally that we aren't even aware of what a complicated task it is.

We can take a facial picture of a person who is well known to an individual and shrink it down to a tiny size, for example 20 pixels by 20 pixels. At that tiny size, the features are just blobs of pixels but the person's face will still be recognizable, which speaks to how well our brains are tuned to recognizing human faces.

However, a computer can't make sense of such an image at all — 400 pixels of resolution is just not enough to work with. The human's ability to infer information from limited information is unmatched. Of course, when trying to find an unfamiliar face from a database of millions, the computer has the upper hand.

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be? My laptop. It really is my office — I can work anywhere as long as I have my laptop, power and internet access. Well, I actually do need a few more things such as reasonably fast internet access, a second monitor and a good chair.

But mostly it's about people, not things. Right now, my company has just moved into the Austin Technology Incubator and our space is modest, but it provides everything we need. I forgot coffee — need that too. I am really happy to be in the incubator, but I can work almost anywhere so the value of the office is really the people, not the "stuff."

I get so much from the people around me — whether it's someone to bounce a new idea off of, someone who can introduce me to a person who can help me, or just inspiration from seeing how they handle problems similar to the ones I'm facing.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car? My preferences are pretty eclectic. I like everything from progressive rock like Yes to more classical artists like Phillip Glass. I'm very influenced by my kids and what they listen to changes frequently — right now they have me listening to Florence and the Machine, Mumford & Sons and The Broadway Channel on XM satellite radio.

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.