It was while on holiday in Europe that Andre Coelho came up with the idea for his new payment app.

He went to the beach of the hotel where he was staying in the south of France and wanted a drink, but had forgotten his wallet.

Don’t worry, the waitress told him, we know who you are because we recognise your face.

“When she told me that, I came up with the idea that all people could do this, not just people staying in a hotel,” said Coelho, a former banker with UBS.

That led to Facewallet, an app that lets people pay with nothing more than a selfie and a PIN number.

To use the payment method, customers download the app onto their smartphone, put in their credit card details and “register” their face with a selfie.

Merchants who have also downloaded the app can collect payment using only their smartphone – they enter the price, then hand the phone to the customer who enters their pin then takes a selfie. Entering the PIN serves two purposes – it allows for faster face recognition because the app knows what to search for and it lets users choose which credit card they use by having different PINs for different cards.

Shoppers need neither their phone nor their credit card. “You can leave the phone at home and go to a shop completely naked,” says Coelho.

In the event of a dispute over a payment, the shopper can go back and look at their selfie to verify that it was indeed they who made the purchase.

The company teamed up with PayPal in Brazil, but faced a setback when the demo failed because the face recognition technology wasn’t sufficiently secure.

Coelho put the project on hold and sought out someone who could build proprietary face recognition technology for the app. He brought in Giovani Chiachia, a computer scientist who has spent eight years researching the technology.

Coelho’s app is no longer called Facewallet. In July it was renamed Saffe because while ‘Facewallet’ was straightforward enough in English, it was confusing in other languages. ‘Saffe’ is easy to say in most tongues.

The company also relocated to Munich because Coelho says there is little culture of disruption and innovation in Brazil and venture capitalists were only willing to fund ecommerce and ‘software as a service’ platforms. Also, the payments sector in Brazil is a duopoly, making it much harder for a new entrant to gain traction.

Once in Europe, Saffe joined Wayra, a tech accelerator backed by Spanish telco Telefónica. It also has partnerships with a subsidiary of Italy’s UniCredit and is close to signing another major European bank.

Ahead of its commercial launch at the start of 2016, Saffe has been acquiring merchants, including the largest entertainment group in Northern Spain and a large German coffee chain.

Saffe plans to charge shoppers a commission of just 1 per cent, which is more in line with the fees they pay at traditional point of sale terminals and below the 3 per cent typically charged by mobile point of sale applications (mPOS).

Biometrics the Next Big Thing?

Biometrics – using of fingerprints, voices, irises and faces to validate identity – is being touted by some as the next big thing in payments, particularly in mobile.

Acuity Market Intelligence projects that by 2020, global mobile biometric market revenues will reach US$34.6 billion annually. This includes 4.8 billion biometrically-enabled smart mobile devices generating US$6.2 billion in biometric sensor revenue, 5.4 billion biometric app downloads generating US$21.7 billion in annual revenues from direct purchase and software development fees, and 807 billion biometrically secured payment and non-payment transactions generating US$6.7 billion in authentication fees.
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