Protean Payment’s Echo Card: The Only Card You’ll Ever Need?

If you’re like me, your wallet is bulging with cards. Debit card, library card, loyalty cards, gift cards, etc. They’re stacked up in the little sleeves and can sometimes be a real pain in the arse to wiggle free.

But an Ann Arbor-based startup called Protean Payment has a solution: Its Echo card and accompanying mobile wallet platform that allows users to transfer all of their cards onto one, which is expected to launch publicly early next year.

Protean Payment began when its three co-founders (Miron Klimkowski, Thiago Olson, and Chris Bartenstein, pictured above) met while attending Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. Olson, Protean’s CEO and a native of Rochester, MI, studied electrical engineering and physics and had spent some time working in national labs and in the defense sector. His expertise is in plasma physics, and it was through his exploration of this technology that he realized had an idea for a startup.

They decided Ann Arbor was a good place to locate, especially in terms of the talent they were looking to hire, and reached out to TechTown for support.

The Echo card platform works like this: Users swipe any card with a magnetic stripe on the back through a card reader that plugs into their smartphones. The information from the cards is then stored on a free mobile app, and cards can be added or deleted at any time. Users then send three cards at a time to the Echo card via Bluetooth. At the point of sale, users tap one of three touch sensors on the card, and Echo will then mimic the corresponding card.

“It’s the next generation of credit card technology,” Olson explains. “We’re making the Echo cards out of flexible, strengthened glass with an anti-fingerprint coating in white or black. We’ve packed the computer architecture into the card using a lithium-ion battery processor.”

Olson says what really makes the Echo card special is integrated Bluetooth, which makes getting the card information in the app to the Echo card a breeze. “You can take a picture of your card and it will upload onto the app on the phone,” he says. “A few seconds later, it’s on the Echo.”

But is it safe? Olson says yes. Users can only register cards in a name that matches the one on their photo ID. The app is fully encrypted and able to be wiped remotely. He also points out there are no numbers visible for those trying to record them, nor is it vulnerable to skimming because it can only mimic credit and debit cards registered to the user’s name. Because of its Bluetooth technology, the card knows when it’s been separated from its owner and after a designated amount of time has passed, the information is locked.

Olson acknowledges that Protean Payments isn’t the only company working in the mobile wallet sector—Google and PayPal have both developed similar products—but he says the Echo card is different. “Everyone is trying to develop financial and global payment technology, but there’s one huge hurdle—they don’t work with the current infrastructure. There are 60 million swipe readers, and to replace them won’t happen overnight. So we’re throwing hardware into the mix to get a head start.”

Protean Payment is also going out of its way to take a neutral approach to appeal to credit card companies and merchants as well as users because it wants to avoid some of the treacherous competition that other mobile wallet efforts face. (Google Wallet is banned, for instance, on AT&T phones, Olson says.) It also will not initially capture data, something Target has also taken Google to task for.

The company plans to monetize its technology by charging users $80 to $100 for an Echo card. It plans to prove demand by targeting early adopters and those in the design fields, and then use that to work with large banks interested in using this technology in the future. Olson says because the card carries so much technology, it’s expensive to manufacture, and that’s why Protean Payment will be seeking partnerships with banks.

Olson says Protean Payment recently won a sector award at the Accelerate Michigan Business Competition. The company has also entered into a partnership with Silicon Valley’s Jumio to utilize its card-swiping and ID verification technology, and they’ve gotten by so far with angel funding by leveraging such partnerships.

Protean Payment plans to begin a Series A fundraising round in the first quarter of 2013, and Olson says he and his co-founders feel very optimistic about the company’s future. He thinks once consumers see the Echo card in the hands of early adopters, word will spread.

“A card is one of the most visible objects we carry,” he adds. “We focused on design to create a card that looks like no other, so it has a viral effect offline.”

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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