SnowShoe Makes Impression with High-Tech Software, Low-Tech Stamp

12/24/13Follow @MichaelXBD

So how does SnowShoe, a four-person tech startup originally from Madison, WI, and now split between that city and San Francisco, plan to make it big?

With a little plastic widget that’s about 2 inches long, 1 inch wide, less than an inch thick, and can be made by a 3-D printer for less than a buck.

The SnowShoe Stamp might be small and cheap, but the SnowShoe team—which graduated from Techstars Boulder in 2013—believes it could be the solution to some big and expensive problems, including providing cheap and reliable two-factor identification and user authentication across multiple technology platforms.

If SnowShoe gets it right, its stamp could be popping up next to cash registers and on store shelves near you, and its accompanying software could be powering apps on phones around the world.

Not just a stamp

The SnowShoe Stamp

There aren’t many technologies humbler than the stamp, and there aren’t many gadgets more cutting-edge than the latest smartphone. SnowShoe’s goal is to bridge the two. It spent the summer in Boulder, CO, at the Techstars accelerator building the prototype stamp and developing the software that smartphones need to read it.

The first thing to know about the stamp is it isn’t a stamp at all in the traditional sense. It doesn’t need to be inked, and it doesn’t leave an imprint.

The stamp actually is a little plastic widget that conducts electricity, sending current from the user’s body to a smartphone or tablet touchscreen, or laptop trackpad. The capacitive sensors on those devices can read the stamp’s special five-point pattern just like they can read where fingers are, and the SnowShoe software algorithmically matches the stamp’s signature against a database of valid patterns.

For a smartphone accessory, the stamp is surprisingly low-tech—the version handed out at Techstars demo day is just a solid piece of plastic, shaped like a rectangle with one of the corners lopped off. Little cylindrical feet, or touchpoints, are at each of the five corners, extending about a quarter-inch past the widget’s body. It’s those feet that make contact with the screen.

Beyond the plastic

The stamp itself is a neat little device and is usually the first thing people talk about when talking about SnowShoe. But it’s not SnowShoe’s most important technology, according to CEO Claus Moberg.

“The plastic is just that, it’s a piece of plastic. It has no battery, no power, no circuitry, it doesn’t do anything for you without all the software we built,” he said.

To show the software in action at demo day, SnowShoe built a webpage that demonstrates what happens when its software meets the stamp. After entering the address, the site popped up and asked a user to place the stamp against the screen. The device read the pattern and brought up another page explaining how the SnowShoe stamp works.

It didn’t look like much, but there was a lot that went on after the contact was made, according to SnowShoe’s presentation. First, the sensor scanned the stamp and recognized a geometric pattern between the points. It sent that pattern to SnowShoe’s servers, where the startup’s software matched it against its database of more than 2 million patterns. The authentication software recognized it as the pattern that meant “go to the explanation page,” and sent the browser in that direction.

SnowShoe developed that software during Techstars, but its goal isn’t to develop apps or websites. Instead, it is creating tools developers making an app would use. Their clients could include grocery stores, restaurants, or anyone needing two-factor authentication built into their apps.

“The plastic is obviously important because it proves that a transaction has occurred, but really the value we provide … Next Page »

Michael Davidson is the editor of Xconomy Boulder/Denver. He covers startups, venture capital, clean tech, energy, aerospace, telecoms, and whatever else happens above 5,280 feet. Contact him at mdavidson@xconomy.com. Follow @MichaelXBD

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