January 15, 2020

Trust is one of the key ingredients for the success of Synapse Technology, a company that helps detect threats at security checkpoints around the world.

Synpase Technology’s algorithms rely on artificial intelligence, a tool some people view with concern. Early on, as they were testing their software with prospective customers, there was confusion about what the tech did. Screeners worried it would monitor their work habits rather than identify weapons hidden in people’s luggage. That customer feedback helped Ian Cinnamon, president and co-founder of Synapse, realize it was crucial that customers be able to trust the technology, so Synapse builds and tunes its algorithms with that in mind. 

“We are able to create algorithms that better emulate how humans will actually perform and I think that’s going to be one of the key things with trust in AI. It’s not just how good is the algorithm, it’s how similar is the algorithm when it misses what a human would miss,” Ian explained on the latest episode of The Innovators Radio Show and Podcast.  

Rooted in cognitive research

Ian first recognized a problem with security checkpoints in the early 2000s when he was at MIT researching how the human brain processes images. He found it is difficult for people to find a particular target when it appears sporadically, as is the case at a security checkpoint. That meant screeners often missed threats even when they diligently monitored checkpoint the X-Ray feeds. 

When AI became ubiquitous in 2016, Ian saw an opportunity to create a solution for this problem, but getting people to buy in to his idea presented some challenges. He approached the government first, but the TSA was skeptical that the technology would work. 

Getting the company’s first win meant going outside the U.S., to a privately owned airport in Japan where there were fewer government regulations to navigate. There, Synapse built an algorithm to detect cigarette lighters – which represent the biggest threat at airport checkpoints in Japan.  Validation was swift: One of the Japanese checkpoint operators told Ian: “Your product makes me no longer want to quit my job.”

Today, Synpase’s Syntech ONE technology has been widely deployed, processing more than 12 million passenger bags at security checkpoints in four countries. 

Ian’s advice to other AI entrepreneurs? It’s not about tackling the coolest, sexiest problems; it’s about narrowing it down to the more immediate problems that when solved can have the greatest impact on society.

Learn more about Ian’s journey from MIT researcher to mission-driven entrepreneur by listening to his full interview here or skip to the time stamps below.  

11:48: Why having a strong team is everything

21:02: What it took to validate Synapse’s idea

27:39: How Synapse got its first customer 

31:45: Using customer feedback to grow 

32:20: Playing a long game – by offering a free demonstration to get in the door 

35:35: Providing customer value is key; here’s how Synapse is doing it

42:02: How to create trust in AI tech 

45:25: Entrepreneurship is a rollercoaster

50:48: Ian’s advice for other entrepreneurs

The Innovators Radio Show and Podcast highlights the best and brightest mission-driven entrepreneurs — people dedicated to making the world a better place. The show airs Mondays at 11 am PT/2 pm ET on Stanford University radio station KZSU, 90.1 FM, and is streamed at kzsu.org. Past episodes are archived here.