April 03, 2006

Profile: Infonox president and financial service kiosks

Safwan Shah does financial service kiosks and gaming kiosk right. Nice interview.

Source Link

From academia and NASA to the founding of a self-service financial software and solutions company, Dr. Safwan Shah’s story is hard to top.

With his San Jose, Calif., company, Infonox Inc., Shah is taking the financial self-service space to new heights.

Safwan Shah is the founder and president of California's Infonox Inc.

Companies like Global Cash Access Inc., Vero Inc., Bank of America, Fleet Bank, IBM, Western Union and Verizon Wireless all have Infonox solutions standing behind them.

"We are kind of hidden in the background," Shah said.

With Global Cash Access, a company focused on the gaming industry, Infonox developed EDITH (Electronic Debit Interactive Terminal Housing), a cashless-gaming kiosk that prints vouchers patrons purchase with their ATM/debit cards. EDITH is designed to stand next to a slot machine, where it occupies less than 1-square-foot of space.

"We are launching a whole library of services in self-service," Shah said with excitement, and EDITH is just one of them. In fact, before EDITH, Shah broke new ground in financial self-service tech, with the development of the first biometric ATM.

Shah's wife, Ginni, says her husband's diligence is the reason for his success. Simply put, he never rests.

"Safwan does enormous homework on almost anything he decides to do," she said. "He spends long hours studying the market, analyzing ideas and critiquing his own findings. … His discipline, persistence, originality and complete commitment to whatever he does (have made him). He is a true innovator. Even if left on a desert, he would find a way to innovate, somehow."

To fully understand Shah’s drive to innovate, one need only take a glimpse at his background.

A man of solutions

After leaving his home of Karachi, Pakistan, Shah hit the Far East before landing in the United States 17 years ago to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder. He went on to earn a Master of Science in electrical and computer engineering and a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering.

Safwan does enormous homework on almost anything he decides to do. He spends long hours studying the market, analyzing ideas and critiquing his own findings.<

The only boy in an immediate family of overachievers, Shah’s destiny was, at least to some extent, predetermined.

"I wanted to be an engineer always," Shah said. "The world I grew up in, you didn’t have many choices. In order to become something, you had to be an engineer or a doctor. I come from a long line of them. My grandfather was an engineer, my father was an engineer, all of my uncles were in engineering — I come from a three-generation engineering family."

Though the women in his family didn’t go into engineering, they’re definitely not sitting on the sidelines. One sister is a medical doctor; the other — "the MBA business type," Shah said. And he refers to his mother as a "perpetual artist," a woman who is always working with oils on the canvas.

Like most in his family, Shah left his home to pursue his education.

"I just came here to study more — almost everyone in my family expected me to study more," he said. "It’s all about sibling rivalry and PhDs, etc. Many of the academic choices I made were based on that, like aerospace engineering. That just sounded interesting, so I said, "That looks good, let’s do it. "

But unlike others in his family, Shah stayed in the States. After meeting wife Ginni, another computer scientist, in Boulder, Colo., Shah went on to pursue a career with NASA’s BioServe Space Technologies.

At BioServe, Shah developed autonomous control systems for space. The systems were self-governing, self-healing and degraded over time. Ensuring that they continued to operate over the course of their life spans was Shah’s job.

Not surprisingly, Shah says his work with NASA helped him lay the groundwork for what he would later do at Infonox.

From NASA to Infonox

Safwan Shah
Founder, Infonox

Education: M.S. in electrical and computer engineering; Ph.D. in aerospace engineering — University of Colorado at Boulder

Hometown: Karachi, Pakistan

Family: Wife, Ginni; daughters, Sanah, 7, and Zoyah, 5

Hobbies: Reading, following cricket

"Looking back, now in retrospect, there are a lot of similarities between what I did for NASA and the work I do now with financial systems," he said. "This was machinery that had to remain and operate at a high level over time, and that translates very well when you think about an ATM. You have to operate the (ATM) vault remotely, and you want it to remain at peak performance. My work at NASA has been the most useful experience for me."

At Infonox, Shah develops software that "learns from itself."

"You see transactions that adapt and adjust in the face of ground reality," he said. "It’s called self-learning adaptive systems. … You can predict the failure. If the ATM is not limited to a cash dispenser and PIN pad and card reader, and what if it had a fingerprint reader and a check casher, too? How do you know what is or will be broken? The canvas is much bigger, and all those things are leading to key changes or improvements in the thinking of self-service terminals."

Infonox’ first innovations were realized in the gaming sector. The company’s biometric ATM — one capable of facial recognition — was designed for the gaming market more than three years ago.

It was Shah’s vision that reeled in Global Cash Access, one of Infonox’ first customers. Kirk Sanford, the company’s chief executive, wanted a casino ATM that emulated a bank teller.

"I can recall providing Safwan with a basic concept of what I termed ‘Virtual Cashier,’" Sanford said. "And he responded by saying that we will need to innovate in multiple ways."

That innovation included writing new software, creating a new way to drive the ATM and developing a monitoring system.

"He made it sound easy … and I walked away assuming that it was," Sanford said.

Twelve months after the meeting with Shah, Global Cash Access deployed the machines. They were modified Diebold ATMs, upgraded to what are now called Automated Cashier Machines (ACMs), offering a litany of financial services, including biometric facial recognition.

"In retrospect, I find it amazing that in 12 months Safwan and his team were able to write from scratch some very complex ATM software, integrate biometrics using facial recognition, and write a new payment switch to drive the ATMs," Sanford said. "No processor has the capability to drive such ATMs, even today. And then (Infonox provided) the system monitoring, reporting, cash management and other functionalities that go into the product."

What’s more, Sanford said, the ACM’s software and hardware are flexible, allowing Global Cash Access to adapt to specific customer needs. Shah carefully skirted many of the issues that complicated internetwork financial communication.

Today, Global Cash Access keeps more than 300 Infonox ACMs in casinos and has contracts with the nine largest casino companies in the country.

Since 1999, the year Shah founded Infonox, Global Cash Access has commissioned Infonox to build, among other things, EDITH and QCP, a system that handles millions of cashier transactions daily.

And Global Cash Access isn’t alone in its pursuit of Infonox innovations. Shah’s company has grown to 100 employees in two countries and generates almost $10 million in annual revenue with over $40 million generated in the last five years of operations. It seems like a complicated series of successes, but as usual, Shah gives a pretty basic explanation.

"I take my work very seriously, anything I do," he said. "A lot of that goes back to the way I was raised. You learn, learn, etc., and that’s the biggest power you have in life — knowledge."

Posted by keefner at April 3, 2006 09:32 PM