Wednesday 15 April 2020 12:48 pm

British AI startup Onfido in talks to provide coronavirus immunity passports

British AI startup Onfido revealed a $100m (£80m) funding round today and confirmed it is in talks to provide so-called coronavirus immunity passports when lockdowns begin to ease.

The entirety of Onfido’s new stake comes from US investor TPG Growth’s $45bn fund, and brings the digital identity startup’s total funding to $200m.

Founder Husayn Kassai plans to use the cash mostly to bolster its presence in the US, its largest and fastest growing market.

The company now has 400 staff over nine offices in seven countries.

And Kassai told City A.M. Onfido is in talks to help governments get people back to work after coronavirus infections peak, by providing proof somebody has recovered from the virus.

Onfido in talks to offer immunity IDs when lockdowns ease

“We now have hundreds of thousands of people, soon millions, who can go back to work or help with volunteering efforts,” Kassai told City A.M.

“But governments are now wondering how to attach a test result to somebody’s identity so you can prove you’re immune.”

Onfido’s platform uses machine learning to verify a person’s photo ID and match it to their face using biometrics.

Kassai said this software could help people prove to police they have recovered from coronavirus. That could help governments avoid a second wave of infections when they ease restrictions.

The startup is now in talks with various European countries and the US government over playing a role in such systems, Kassai said.

“Nothing has been agreed but we have submitted proposals across European governments. The first priority is to roll out lockdown testing that’s scalable and effective, next is the ID piece.”

He believes this could happen within weeks – if home testing kits become widely available. So far scientists have ruled out fingerprick tests ordered by the UK, saying they are not reliable enough.

The UK government has been quiet on how and when it will ease current restrictions on travel.

But yesterday’s economic scenario spelled out by the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) is based on the UK lockdown ending in June. Three months of partially lifted restrictions could then follow as the economy gets back on its feet.

And European governments are already drawing up plans to ease lockdowns, amid hopes the virus is peaking.

Coronavirus highlights ID verification issues

But so far the UK government has struggled with identity verification issues during the coronavirus crisis.

Kassai pointed to delays in checking the hundreds of thousands of volunteers who signed up to help the NHS as a textbook example of the problem he wants to solve.

An unprecedented 750,000 people answered the government’s call for NHS volunteers. But the huge response forced the government to pause the scheme, with around half a million applicants still awaiting vetting earlier this month.

“The last few months have shown how broken the current ecosystem is,” he said. “There’s weeks of delay to volunteer for the NHS. You have a tonne of issues [meaning] people are not being able to help.”

How Onfido raised $100m in the coronavirus crisis

Onfido’s latest funding round has been in the works since January, when the coronavirus crisis first emerged in China.

Since then, Covid-19 has spread across the globe as a pandemic that will shortly plunge world economies into recession.

But Kassai said his startup’s focus on digital identity has helped it remain an attractive proposition amid the mounting crisis.

“It’s a tough time for most startups to raise money,” he told City A.M. “Across the board investors are prioritising profitability. This uncertainty doesn’t help, but at the same time these large funds… become more focused on what is more likely to be relevant.”

With people forced to work from home amid the coronavirus lockdown, demand for secure tools to do so has spiked.

The same story is unfolding in the venture capital space, Kassai confirmed.

“Anything related to security and remote working is getting more interest now.”