'I have a vision that we will be the first tech unicorn to come from Northern Ireland'
The Big Interview: Alan Foreman, B-Secur
It may be small, but when it comes to ambition, scale is not an issue for Belfast firm B-Secur. Based in the city's bustling start-up hub Catalyst Inc, the tech firm's chief executive is a man with a billion-dollar goal.
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"I have a vision that we will make this the first, or one of the first, unicorns to come from Northern Ireland," said Co Down man Alan Foreman (46).
Such a claim might earn a swift rebuke in any of Belfast's many drinking establishments, but in Las Vegas, where Alan has just returned after launching the firm's latest product at the world's biggest tech event, CES, the industry is sitting up and taking notice.
B-Secur uses the human heart as the source of its next-level biometric technology.
From early incursions into electrocardiogram (ECG) based security, the company is now adopting its software for use in the motor and wearable tech industries.
"Through our technology, I can tell you how stressed you are in real time, I can tell you what your heart rate is like, I can tell how fatigued you are and I can tell if you have any health problems," Alan said.
Introduced into a vehicle or an item of clothing and the applications are immeasurable.
"By simply touching your steering wheel, or through the watch or T-shirt you are wearing, we can see in real time and detect how well you are.
"That has huge implications for the NHS, and for drivers. A quarter of all driver road deaths are caused by fatigue. We know about three minutes before a driver is in a fatigued-enough state where they cannot drive the car. So we can save lives."
Founded in 2002 by Colin Anderson, B-Secur emerged out of efforts to understand the differences between people for security purposes.
The company remained largely dormant for a number of years, until it gained new momentum just over four years ago when Alan Foreman came on board.
The Co Down man, who had been out of Northern Ireland for some 25 years, was at the time the global managing director for tech firm Accenture.
"Colin said, 'Why don't you look at this little dormant project and pick it up? The world is now right for the next generation of biometrics.'"
The adoption of biometrics into smartphone devices has resulted in an explosion of the technology, with millions of people using fingerprint, iris, voice and facial recognition daily.
"Until Apple put it into the iPhone four years ago, no one was comfortable about sharing that type of biometric data," Alan recalled.
"Now everyone accesses their bank account or personal details using biometrics. So the world has really moved on in recent years.
"But those traditional methods of biometrics are really quite rudimentary and now the tech world is looking for the next evolution."
B-Secur believes it has the answer in the guise of its ECG/heart technology.
"The new generation of biometrics, such as ECG, offers much more," Alan said.
"Not only can we secure data, but we can offer insights into individuals' health and wellness.
Speaking last week, the chief executive was still buzzing after the successful launch of B-Secur's new product Heartkey at CES - the world's largest tech event in Las Vegas.
"We were chosen as a 'top pick' for CES; I don't think that's ever happened for a Northern Ireland company before. It's really cool."
B-Secur has already developed prototype T-shirts and steering wheels to demonstrate the technology's potential.
It's already understood to have attracted the interest of a number of major car manufacturers, with one of Europe's biggest motor firms believed to be among those currently testing the tech.
"Our software fits into everyone else's technology, whether it be a steering wheel or a wearable," said Alan.
While the potential adoption by major German car makers is an exciting turn for the firm, Alan believes its application could have an even greater impact in the heavily regulated world of truck driving, where drivers face restrictions on their time behind the wheel.
"If we can automate that and know the driver is within certain parameters, then we can control the vehicle."
Despite the market for wearable tracker devices becoming increasingly crowded, Alan remains undaunted.
"The stuff that Fitbit and Apple and what everybody has come out with is very rudimentary technology.
"They use a little light that shines into your skin, it's old technology. So all of them are coming to us now to give them ECG or medical-grade technology.
"We can build that into a Fitbit, for example, and allow it to move from just a fitness tracker toward a health or medical device. That's where the world wants to go.
"Apple and Google have already announced that they [each] want to move to become a medical and health-related company. That's where the big market is for the tech guys in the world."
Apple are currently developing their own in-house ECG programme.
But Alan said other firms who have attempted to deploy similar software to date have eventually turned to B Secur and Belfast.
"We're working with every other player in the market."
B Secur has also developed a new T-shirt which similarly will detect stress and fatigue.
"You can put this onto older dementia patients or young children, take them out of the hospital environment and monitor them in real time."
Other potential uses include monitoring security or armed forces; fire fighters; medical staff or any employees where health and safety is an issue.
"We know if their stress level is beyond the norm such that intervention is required.
"All the big tech companies are starting to wake up to the idea that this is possibly important."
After four years of development, things are beginning to move fast at B-Secur.
In July 2017, the company sealed the largest funding round of any Northern Ireland start-up that year, when it raised £3.5m from a syndicate of investors including Accelerated Digital Ventures (ADV) and Kernel Capital.
Last month, B-Secur gathered another significant investment, understood to be in excess of 2017's record-breaking round.
"It allows us to really accelerate into delivering to our customers in many geographies and allows us to grow," Alan explained.
In the past 12 months, B-Secur has grown from five to 36 staff. It expects to add another 10 and a new office in San Francisco this year.
Next month, it will move into a larger space at its base in Catalyst Inc.
Although he still lives in south Manchester with his Glaswegian wife Roisin and their three children Tom (11) and twins Charlie and Rose (8), Alan admits he is considering a more permanent move to home ground.
From north Down originally, he grew up "a country boy", attending Andrew's Memorial Primary School in Comber before moving on to Regent House Grammar in Newtownards and later Campbell College in Belfast.
Aged 18 he left Northern Ireland to study business and engineering at the University of Strathclyde. In 1995, he began an 18-year career with technology and business consulting firm Accenture.
Rising to managing director, he specialised in product and healthcare-based industries.
He remained there until June 2014, when he came on board with B-Secur.
While he travels less now than in his Accenture days, airport departure lounges remain a big feature in his life.
"I fly over to Belfast every week. Most of our investors and clients are not in Northern Ireland, so I spend my time running the business in Belfast and the other half with our customers.
"When I was in Accenture, I was away five nights a week. Life is relatively easy now - it's all UK-based, for a start. Manchester to Belfast is a very straight-forward flight. I try to keep it to two nights a week away now."
He insisted that the use of Belfast as B-Secur's base is not about sentiment.
"I searched the whole of Europe whenever we were setting it up. I considered Berlin, but eventually we landed on Belfast, mainly because of the talent we able to see," he said.
"Back four years there was also a growing ecosystem, which I would put down to Catalyst Inc.
"Small companies can thrive and become unicorns if they've got enough momentum in a small space.
"Catalyst has joined us up with people in England and Scotland. That's what has given us the ability to grow."
The proximity to Queen's University's two key tech hubs in the Titanic Quarter - the Centre for Secure Information Technologies (CSIT) and the Institute of Electronics, Communications and IT (CSIT) - was another draw.
B-Secur has also successfully encouraged some of its recruits to move from England to Northern Ireland, including its chief commercial officer, Ben Carter.
Along with chief technology officer Adrian Condon, the pair have been key to the start-up's success to date.
"Those guys have really built the technology so well and run the show down at Catalyst," Alan added.
"We still articulate ourselves as still early stage, but our technology is pretty pioneering stuff.
"We've developed from a very small base to a company that's making waves on the world forum.
"We're starting to investigate China, we can't avoid it. But we need to nail the US first as our primary market before we spread our wings even further.
"We're really only starting to be understood."