Bill Anderson calls it his "aha" moment - that sudden flash of insight when he drew a career-altering connection between decades-old research and his job as a computer security expert.
At that time, nearly two years ago, Anderson had a comfortable job as vice president at an established computer security firm in Maryland. But while sitting on his couch one day reading Consciousness Explained, a book by American philosopher Daniel Dennett, Anderson learned about one scientist's research into variations in the way the human eye reads and processes text and images.
"This obscure characteristic about the way eyes work and the way the brain understands the way the eyes work, suddenly struck me as [a solution to] a security problem," said Anderson, who has a doctorate in cryptology. "I said, 'Holy cow. No one has thought of using this to protect the contents of a screen.' It was just some obscure research."
Gathering his courage, Anderson, 42, quit his job at SafeNet Inc. in Belcamp, raised $1.2 million in seed money from friends and family, and plunged full time into developing his idea - a software program that allows only an authorized user to read text on the screen, while everyone else sees gibberish.
With the help of a couple of software developers, he tested, tweaked and revamped the software over the course of several months. He immersed himself in the Baltimore area's start-up scene, turning to CEOs, attorneys, serial entrepreneurs and other experts for guidance. Along the way, he won some early recognition, including an Innovator of the Year Award last week from the Maryland Technology Development Corp., and some funding from the state Department of Business and Economic Development.
Now, 18 months after he launched Oculis Labs Inc., Anderson has three pending patents and two products ready to be pushed into the market by his four-person company in Owings Mills. Venture capital firms and angel investors are courting him - even in the toughest start-up investment climate in a decade.
He hopes he can land a defense-related government contract for his most powerful product, Chameleon, in the next few months. His first contract would likely make his company more appealing to venture capitalists, who are looking to fund start-ups that are pulling in revenue.
"Good companies get to be funded in bad times as well as good economic times," said Mark Esposito, who tracks the mid-Atlantic venture capital market as director of emerging company services for PriceWaterhouseCoopers. "They may be hungrier, and there's a more robust set of entrepreneurs out there."
Anderson was hungry, but he was also motivated by fear that another company would develop his idea before he did.
Chameleon uses gaze-tracking software and camera equipment to track an authorized reader's eyes to show only that one person the correct text. After a 15-second calibration period where the software essentially "learns" the viewer's gaze patterns, anyone looking over that user's shoulder just sees dummy text that randomly and constantly changes.
Anderson built a more consumer-friendly version called PrivateEye, which can work with a simple Web cam. The software blurs a user's monitor when he or she turns away. It also detects other faces in the background, and a small video screen pops up to alert the user that someone is looking at their screen.
"There've been inventions in the space of gaze-tracking. There've been inventions in the space of security. But nobody has put the two ideas together, as far as we know," Anderson said.
He's pitched Chameleon to federal government agencies, including those in the defense and intelligence communities, and gotten strong interest, he said. For now, however, the high-end Chameleon product would cost more than $10,000, making its appeal mainly to large, security-sensitive government agencies.
The specialized equipment that tracks a viewer's eyes already exists and is in use in some monitors. Anderson also found companies that make portable gaze-tracking equipment that is the size of a long, squat brick, and which can be positioned on a laptop or under a desktop monitor to track a user's eyes with his software.
Looking to go even smaller, he's pursuing a partnership with a manufacturer of rugged, secure laptops to have Chameleon as a built-in feature for battlefield environments. The technology would add roughly $1,000 to such a laptop that sells for about $6,000, according to Anderson.
Anderson says the gaze-tracking technology needs to become cheap and small enough to fit into laptops and even smart phones if the top-end Chameleon system is to go mainstream. For PrivateEye, Anderson said he's gotten interest from one of the world's top five computer makers for the software, which could be licensed, bundled and sold to consumers as part of a computer's security offering. PrivateEye is available for download from Oculis' Web site, starting at $19.95.
Oculis will need to educate potential customers on how its products work because there isn't anything like them in the marketplace, said Vic Hess, entrepreneur in residence at the Howard County Center for Business and Technology Development, who advised Anderson.
Anderson also turned to Karl Ginter, an entrepreneur who runs a firm called Inspyris LLC in Beltsville, for start-up advice. Ginter said Anderson has "come a real long distance without a lot of money."
"He's got two products with two distinct markets, and he basically now needs money to take them to market," Ginter said. "I think his chances are pretty good."