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IT, Nonprofit • 11-50 employees • Based in Cambridge, UK • simprints.com
Simprints is a nonprofit tech company that builds low-cost, rugged fingerprint scanners for researchers, NGOs, and governments fighting poverty around the world.
Sebastian Manhart, Simprint’s Director of Business Development, spoke with us about the history of the organization and how they go about recruiting and hiring tech talent.
Simprints is a nonprofit tech company that came out of the University of Cambridge in the U.K. We’re trying to tackle what is called the “identification bottleneck,” which refers to the 1.5 billion people around the world who do not have any type of formal ID.
Most of us have a driver’s license, a passport, a Social Security number and other forms of ID. We have different ways of showing who we are, which allows us to access a lot of services that we take for granted. But these 1.5 billion people just don’t have that opportunity.
There are NGOs, governments and even businesses that are trying to extend essential services to people in need. Whether it’s a vaccination for children or a micro-finance loan, the organizations providing these services need to know who they’re dealing with.
We’re building identification pools based on fingerprint biometrics that are accessible, robust, open source and tailored to these frontline contexts where you have high humidity, high temperatures, and people with rough fingerprints that have been used a whole lifetime.
It started with a student competition where a couple of organizations around the University of Cambridge came together to take on a specific challenge. The challenge was to imagine you went into a country and had every vaccination ready for every child. How would you go about vaccinating every child? How would you know afterward if the campaign was actually successful?
That’s when we started thinking about biometrics. We won that student competition and few more. We had a few thousand pounds and kept getting together on nights and weekends. We got enough money to put together a basic fingerprint scanner prototype and some software and took it out to Bangladesh.
Then we thought, to make this work, we need to get some data. We applied for a grant with the Gates Foundation called “Saving Lives at Birth.” We got it with the initial data we collected in Bangladesh and convinced some big institutions and corporates to put their weight behind us.
That was the moment we realized this was more than a student project. We decided it was time to set up an office and hire some people. Ever since, it’s been a tremendous story and adventure and it all started with some university students getting together.
Hiring is one of the biggest challenges we face. We’re trying to solve a huge challenge that even biometrics companies with hundreds of employees have not been able to solve. And we’re trying to do it on a shoestring budget with 10-15 people. That only works if you hire not just good people, but the best people. That’s been a real real challenge because, in terms of tech recruitment, we’re competing with the Amazons, the Twitters, the Facebooks, the Googles of the world.
Since we can’t afford to pay the same salaries, we need to reach the right people and get them to buy into our vision. We need to make such a compelling case that they’re happy to take a risky, significantly lower paying job that won’t result in the traditional opportunities that come in the private sector. They have to want to do it because they believe in our mission and the impact they can make.
Our CEO always wanted to work for McKinsey and worked years to get that offer. He finally had it but it was just when he start working on Simprints. He kept postponing the offer until McKinsey finally gave him a one-week ultimatum. I remember being with him and he was struggling with the decision because, at that point, Simprints was a risky choice. He opted for Simprints over an opportunity where the signing bonus would have been higher than his yearly salary at Simprints.
For me, I was always supposed to go to the U.N. I networked tirelessly for six years. I completed something like 35 applications, 34 of which never got back to me. I ended up getting the job but then I learned about Simprints. I sort of got sucked in and told the U.N. that I wouldn’t be coming at after all.
That’s a theme here. We have people from Siemens and we’ve recruited people from Amazon and similar companies. It’s always a tricky decision for candidates considering joining but what we end up with is people who are insanely committed.
Retention is a huge challenge, especially if you look at our sector. The impact a person makes goes a long way in whether or not they change jobs.
One of the things we do, is we send everyone in the company to field sites, whether they’re an engineer, an accountant or a project manager. We send them out so they can see how what they do translates to impact on the ground. If we have a coder stuck in front of a laptop for three years, they’ll lose their passion if they never see the impact of what they do.
What we’re doing here, at least for me, feels pretty extraordinary everyday. I was supposed to go to the U.N. where I would have been a small cog in a big wheel. It would have likely taken me many years to climb a very structured ladder toward success and impact.
Here, we’re a young team with only a few people. But the impact and influence we managed to have on this particular challenge, the identification bottleneck, is so disproportionate to the number of people we are. It’s probably what I love most about this job. We have our responsibilities which some days can feel absolutely terrifying. But at the same time, if you’re up for it, it’s just an insane opportunity on a personal level.
But most of all, it’s an opportunity to make a difference in a way that a few, if any, organizations would be able to offer me.
There are 1.5 billion people without identification. Our first goal is to make sure that every NGO and government in the world has access to identification tools that are accessible and that work for that context.
That’s the future. Until we’ve achieved that, we won’t rest.
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