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How three Oxford graduates are using AI to protect our identities

Husayn Kassai, who co-founded tech start-up Onfido with two university friends, reveals his ambitious vision to prevent identity fraud with cutting-edge technology.

University is not the most obvious place to start a multinational business – but for the three young partners behind the identity verification company Onfido, Oxford was where they hatched their winning idea.
Since launching their business in 2012, soon after graduation, co-founders Husayn Kassai, Eamon Jubbawy and Ruhul Amin have truly disrupted the way businesses authenticate their customers’ personal information. Their innovative machine-learning system has already attracted more than 1,500 clients, including Orange, Revolut and Monzo.

The trio were members of the Oxford Entrepreneurs society – which Mr Kassai, Onfido’s chief executive, says was much more than a side-hobby. “I dedicated just enough time to my economics and management course to not get kicked out,” he says, laughing.

“Although I found the work interesting, I was learning so much more by creating a start-up. I was putting my knowledge into practice – so it was much more tangible.”

And the need for effective identity verification was close to Mr Kassai’s heart. When he moved to the UK from Iran at the age of 10 with his family, he saw first-hand how problem-ridden the traditional process was.
“It doesn’t make much sense,” he says. “Currently our identification system is underpinned by credit bureaux, which centralise everyone’s personal data. The intention is to stop fraud, but they’re making it so much easier for fraudsters to steal people’s identities. This needed to change.”

Winning over investors

The technology behind Onfido was inspired by Mr Amin’s final-year thesis work, in which he developed a machine-learning tool that could spot wildlife in images of jungle scenes. The team realised that a similar machine learning system could be used to recognise people’s faces.

“Facial recognition is just pattern recognition,” Mr Kassai says. “As Onfido’s technology keeps learning, becoming stronger and more powerful, we’re able to service even larger clients.”

Even with a fantastic idea, the trio encountered a few obstacles to getting the business off the ground. Mr Kassai remembers some investors were wary about backing such a young, relatively inexperienced team – but this was not always a disadvantage.

One of Onfido’s earliest breaks came from a contact they had made through the Oxford Entrepreneurs – Brent Hoberman, lastminute.com co-founder. “We kept in touch for about 19 months,” says Mr Kassai. “I sent him updates about Onfido, and eventually he invited me to present it to him. He liked it, invested and connected us with quite a few other clients and entrepreneurs.”

Other investments have since come from Microsoft, Talis Capital, and more recently Softbank Investment and Salesforce. Big business leaders have not only put money into Onfido but also been willing to join its growing team.
Former managers at Google, Paypal and Salesforce are now in top roles at Onfido. “A company’s core value is the sum of its people,” says Mr Kassai. “We have a real mix of experiences, but the key thing for me is that people have a sense of hunger and ambition.”

Driving forward

Though Onfido is still based in the UK, Mr Kassai now spends most of his time in its San Francisco office – and new offices are popping up around the globe. This means that the business benefits from global talent and diverse working cultures.

“In the US, companies tend to collaborate a lot more,” he says. “If we have a team of designers and clients working on a new interface, for instance, we would typically invite some of the client’s team to work with us for a bit – that’s very normal practice.
“In the UK this isn’t so common. But it is starting to change, as more entrepreneurs from the US come to work here.”

Mr Kassai’s advice to budding entrepreneurs is to “relentlessly focus on the problem you’re solving – and make sure it’s a real problem.
“Our company mission is to create an open worldwide verification entity, and empower consumers to own and control their legal identity – moving away from centralised credit-bureau databases to a world where people can decide which businesses they want to access their personal data.”

He says: “We see that as the future – and we’re now running pilots to show that.”

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