Exclusive: Inside the Bill Gates-Backed Startup Aiming to Stop the Next Terror Attack

When I entered Evolv Technology’s Waltham headquarters on a recent afternoon, I was greeted by a high-tech body scanner, but I wasn’t meant to pass through its slick-looking pylons. Instead, this piece of sophisticated security technology was meant to showcase what the Bill Gates-backed company was preparing to release into the wild.

But then it took my photo. A tablet connected to the device suddenly displayed my picture, with status text indicating I was an unidentified person in the office. I would later learn that the company is setting up the device to notify the office manager whenever someone who isn’t an employee enters, which is accomplished through the power of facial recognition.

This technology, which has the ability to detect weapons on a person in a matter of seconds, could very well be the future of how a variety of facilities — entertainment venues, mass transit stations, power plants, airports — protect themselves from terror attacks.

With the company having run pilots in over 20 countries now, Evolv’s technology is ready for commercial deployment, which could happen by late May. To help it build a sales and marketing operation, the company told me it has closed an $18 million financing round from Bill Gates, Lux Capital, General Catalyst, Data Collective and two individual investors, bringing its total funding to just under $30 million.

While I didn’t realize it at first, my visit to Evolv’s headquarters was the first time a journalist had been invited to see how the company operates.

Evolv was co-founded in 2013 by Michael Ellenbogen and Anil Chitkara, who licensed intellectual property from a patent licensing firm called Intellectual Ventures, which is run by former Microsoft CTO Nathan Myhrvold. Ellenbogen, the company’s CEO, was previously an entrepreneur-in-residence at General Catalyst, where he helped the venture capital firm identify the technology that would serve as Evolv’s foundation. General Catalyst also funded Ellenbogen’s previous company, Reveal Imaging, which made airport screening technologies and was sold to major a government contractor in 2010. Chitkara, Evolv’s president, was previously a sales and marketing executive at Oco, a business analytics software provider that has been acquired by Deloitte. Before that, he was at computer-aided design giant PTC.

Ellenbogen and Chitkara are very mission-driven with their approach, and that is made evident with a display of three timelines that wraps around three walls. Each timeline represents a different aspect of what drives the company. The first timeline covers the history and implications of the threshold, an architectural structure meant as a throughway that has evolved into the tight security checkpoints we find ourselves whenever we’re about to take a flight. The second covers the history of security technology, beginning with the lock and key and continuing through the invention of metal detection devices in the early 1900’s. The third timeline covers what Evolv hopes to prevent in the future: terrorist attacks.

Using the timelines to explain the company’s mission, Chitkara told me that the kinds of locations the company is trying to protect are what he calls soft targets, which could range anywhere from nightclubs and movie theaters to office buildings and even marathon events. Basically any event gathering large amounts of people.

These are locations where it would be difficult to deploy existing body-scanning and metal detecting technologies, which would create massive bottlenecks in foot traffic if they were.

“I think the challenge is it's hard to deploy metal detectors in a lot of places because of the number of nuisance alarms you get,” Ellenbogen said. “So in order for to be adopted, it's got to keep up with the normal flow of people.”

For Ellenbogen and Chitkara, the answer to this problem is the Evolv Edge, the high-tech body scanner I met at the beginning of my visit. Armed with multiple millimeter wave scanners, cameras, metal detectors and other kinds of sensors, the Edge is designed to detect weapons, whether or not they’re concealed, in seconds without the need for people to empty their pockets.

“This will do over 600 people an hour, which is like three to four times the throughput of a normal checkpoint,” said Ellenbogen, who stated later that Evolv hopes to reach 800 people an hour.

When the Edge detects a weapon on a person, two LED displays light up, indicating whether the person has a firearm (blue light) or an explosive vest (red light). At the same time, a tablet connected to the Edge shows a picture of the person with a highlighted area covering the part where a weapon or other kind of threat has been identified.

The system’s facial recognition system can also be used to detect whenever someone on a whitelist, such as an employee, or a blacklist passes through.

To demonstrate the Edge, Chitkara outfitted himself with a fake pistol and concealed it under a jacket. After walking through the scanners at a normal pace and stopping briefly a few feet away, the Edge made a noise to indicate that something was up and the tablet displayed a transparent blue rectangle over the side of his chest where the pistol was located. I tried it for myself after I was outfitted with a mock non-metallic explosive vest, and the machine flashed a red light, with the tablet showing that I was concealing a non-metallic threat under my jacket.

The Edge is able to detect non-metallic items by sending millimeter waves — the same kind of radio waves used in airport body scanners — that go through your clothes and bounce off your body. Once that information is sent back to the system, it uses machine learning algorithms to look to identify features of weapons and other deadly devices that are in a database Evolv has created in consultation with U.S. and European governmental anti-terror organizations.

Addressing privacy concerns, Chitkara said the device does not create an image of a person’s body when it’s scanned and that someone like a security guard would not be able to produce such an image. Instead, the software only looks for anomalies from the data set it receives.

As to whether someone could reverse-engineer the Evolv, Chitkara said “that would be extremely difficult to do for a number of reasons, some of which are safeguards we built in and architectural decisions we made about the product itself.”

Chitkara told me the Edge is not intended to replace airport body scanners and is instead meant to serve as an extra layer of service. In the case of airports, two of which Evolv has piloted within the U.S., he said the Edge could be deployed at the entrance, which could help prevent attacks like the 2013 shooting at the Los Angeles International Airport.

Beyond the two airports, Evolv has also run pilots at two major U.S. train stations and a couple of entertainment facilities. They are also talking to government entities across more than 20 countries and managers of power plants and sports facilities. Some of the entities it has piloted with are in talks to become paid customers, Chitkara said.

For Evolv, the Edge is the beginning of a business it plans to run like a modern technology company: sell the hardware with a monthly subscription service that keeps the software up-to-date and adds features like facial recognition.

The company is also working on what it calls a first-of-its-kind “security platform” called MosaIQ that will be able to connect to CCTV cameras and other kinds of sensors and allow security operators to have a greater overview of potential threats.

“Most of the security systems that have been deployed have been individual boxes or individual silos,” Ellenbogen said. “How do we start to connect those different capabilities and the different insights? Because we get tired of hearing after the fact that 80 percent of these we have seen, the attacker was known to the authorities.”

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