Alcatraz AI: A Robo Face Control System Developed by Bulgarian Entrepreneur has Raised $6M

Alcatraz’s CEO Vince Gaydardzhiev was born in Bulgaria but he has been living in the US for over 20 years. In 2017 he decided to open an office in Sofia. ©BVCA
Alcatraz’s CEO Vince Gaydardzhiev was born in Bulgaria but he has been living in the US for over 20 years. In 2017 he decided to open an office in Sofia. ©BVCA
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Vince Gaydarzhiev was working on iPhone development at Apple, including biometrics, back in 2015, when he started noticing that even in the most innovative offices the access control is still done the old school way – with badges and guards. Around a year later Alcatraz AI was born – a startup that develops a facial authentication system for physical spaces. The company has raised a total of almost$6M and is ready to pilot the product, starting with Silicon Valley. Among the pilot projects are the office buildings of Google, VMware, and SAP.

Open Sesame

In the past three years, Alcatraz AI has been working on a solution that aims to replace badging as an access point identification method in buildings. “We saw the potential to use the face recognition technology in the physical space if we develop our hardware,” says Gaydarzhiev. The idea – employees could enter buildings without doing anything else but passing by. The hardware component uses real-time 3D facial mapping to ensure this is a real person and then the algorithms allow or deny access based on his or her level of access and the company’s policy.

It looks like a conventional badge scanner but it has several cameras inside and can tell who you are right away. ©Alcatraz AI
It looks like a conventional badge scanner but it has several cameras inside and can tell who you are right away. ©Alcatraz AI

The device itself looks like a conventional badge reader, but it has several cameras inside and a built-in badge sensor. “Those cameras give us 3D colorful and infrared sensing so we can be sure we are seeing a living person. The AI algorithms also allow us to see whether someone is intending to enter the door, or just passing by, whether there are other unauthorized people with the person, etc.,” he explains. Inside the device, there’s a Graphics Processor Unit (GPU) Nvidia processor, so the box is not connected to servers or a cloud, and everything is processed real-time within less than half a second. “It takes the system several days to get to know a person’s face. During this time the employee continues to swipe their badge”, adds Gaydarzhiev. Once set up, the device switches to one-factor facial recognition mode.

The HaaS Model

Alcatraz AI has a Hardware as a Service business model and charges clients (enterprise size) an enrolment fee for the hardware deployment. “Unlike the model in consumer businesses, where customers are charged monthly, we sell annual licenses for alerts, analytics, and facial recognition services,” says the CEO.

Enterprises and large office buildings are the target client of the company and the primary market, for now, is the USA. After the pilot deployments in San Francisco, the founder plans to expand to California and the whole country. Europe would be the next “natural” market for Alcatraz AI, and Gaydarzhiev says, he had already undertaken measures to comply with the local GDPR requirements.

Sofia Connection

Alcatraz’s CEO Vince Gaydarzhiev was born in Bulgaria, but he has been living in the US for over 20 years, ever since high school. Before starting Alcatraz AI, his path led him through multiple engineering degrees in Stanford and the University of California, as well as Nvidia, Apple, and satellite startup Planet. Facing the reality of close to impossible hiring in the Valley, Gaydarzhiev decided to open up another development office outside the US. Indeed, his initial idea was to do it in Russia. However, in 2017 the founder came back to Sofia on vacation, met “several talented guys” and was surprised by the development of the local tech and startup ecosystem. Fast forward to today, Alcatraz AI has a team of nine people in Sofia who develop the algorithms for the company’s product. The 12 additional team members are in Palo Alto, where Alcatraz AI is currently producing up to 30 devices monthly to deploy the pilots.

Prominent Investors

Since the start in March 2016, the Alcatraz AI has raised in total $5.8 from five investors and multiple angels. The latest round of $4M was closed last year got announced in the middle of March, and it will be used for further development of the product and marketing. Among the investors in the startup, we find JCI Ventures, the corporate venture arm of one of the biggest security companies Johnson Controls. The company is also part of Nvidia Inception, the corporate accelerator of the processor developer Nvidia.

Gaydarzhiev plans to raise their next round this summer after the company has several pilots and has worked on initial feedback. “The next investment will be needed to work on mass production readiness and continue building a world-class team. It’s all about the team.”, says the founder.

Read more cool diaspora startup and VC stories in our dedicated channel: Diaspora Special. The stories brought to you thanks to our partnership with the Bulgarian Private Equity and Venture Capital Association (BVCA) which is currently on tour in the USA to bridge the local ecosystem with Bulgarian entrepreneurs and investors overseas.


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