A Slice on Todd Mickelsen, CEO of Converus
No one is perfect, everyone at some point in their life has told a fib, a tale, a falsehood…a lie. Todd Mickelsen is CEO of Converus, a company that aims to correctly identify if a person is lying. Before you start thinking of an old-fashioned lie detector as seen in SVU episodes, Mickelsen (armed with his 30 years of experience in high tech), is revolutionizing lie detection. This next-generation lie detector works by analyzing subtle changes in the eyes. While the noncontact tool works, the individual takes a computer-based test simultaneously. Of the four previous startups Mickelsen has been a part of, he is most interested by Converus and its inherent human element. “This is certainly technology-focused, but it’s a completely different market when you think about testing human beings on whether or not they’re lying. Determining if they’re going to get a job or lose their job, enter the country or not enter the country, go to jail or not go to jail. There’s a very different human element, related to what we do… In comparison to other high tech startups I’ve been involved in.”
Converus was spun out of Alta Ventures, a VC group that formed the first seed fund in Mexico. A large portion of the limited partners investing into the fund are high net worth individuals that run some of the most successful companies in Mexico and Latin America. The fund was ultimately formed with the goal of addressing one major issue that people across Mexico and Latin America face…corruption. The fund was intended to cover a wide array of solutions for all kinds of corruption, even things like hijacked gasoline trucks carrying stolen gas (for example). Paul Ahlstrom was the general partner of the fund and past colleague of Mickelsen’s. Ahlstrom was on the hunt for solutions to the corruption issue when he stumbled across an article from the University of Utah.
Two scientists were working on creating the world’s first computerized polygraph. Instead of a person needing to be present to conduct the polygraph, these two scientists had converted all of that into a computer and created an algorithm that would score the data. All of this research surrounding the computerized polygraph was happening back in the ’90s. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that eye detection was on the scene, but even then it was clunky, a device that had to be worn around the head and only able to analyze one eye. In an effort to streamline this process, the scientists started thinking ‘can we detect someone lying by their eyes, what happens?’ As Mickelsen explained, they were researching “if it was possible that when we lie we exert more mental effort, and if that’s true. There are some involuntary things that happen in the eyes, specifically, the pupils dilate up to a 10th of a millimeter. You can’t see it with the naked eye, but with a sophisticated eye tracker, you’re measuring these minute changes at 60 times per second, you could actually capture those changes and plug them into a computer algorithm to determine if someone was lying.”
As it turns out, the scientists were correct, and this kind of eye test was more accurate than the traditional polygraph. Mickelsen upon realizing their hypothesis was successful, went to the university and said “’Would you be interested if we formed a company that was focused on creating a commercial product, and taking this to the market? Would you be willing to license the company, the IP relative to doing this?’ And they said yes.” Ahlstrom reached out to Mickelsen and asked if he would be willing to come on board and build a company focused on creating a commercial product surrounding lie detection, publish the results in peer-reviewed journals and build a commercial product that could be taken to Mexico and used in the private hiring space.
Jumping ahead to February 2014 Utah Governor Gary Herbert stood alongside Mickelsen as they announced and demo-ed the commercial product EyeDetect. Since that day they have expanded globally, all while seeking to eliminate corruption in the workplace and at a corporate level. This was not an overnight expansion however, with seed money in hand Mickelsen and team still had to build the software from the ground up. Mickelsen shared how there was quite a bit of heavy lifting involved and the process ultimately proved to be harder than he anticipated.
“The software worked great, but you have this aspect of changing human nature. Now, you’re going in and talking to a CEO, saying, ‘Hey, use this product to screen people that you’re hiring so that you don’t hire any bad apples and periodically test your current employees.’ Oftentimes companies were having a lot of theft, maybe bribes, and other problems. That introduced a whole new set of challenges where suddenly if they were guilty of some of those issues, they were like, ‘Well, we don’t want to bring this product in, right now because I’m going to get caught, and I’m going to lose out on the money train that I have.’ And so we quickly realized that it was going to take time.”
Taking their experiences with private companies in stride they shifted focus to government, which was a longer process but proved to have a much higher adoption rate. EyeDetect is now in 50 countries, with over 50 languages running hundreds of thousands of tests a year. Mickelsen noted that although it’s fun to make money and be successful, it’s even more fun and rewarding to do something that is actually making a difference.
Todd Mickelsen is an alumnus of Brigham Young University, and has experience in product marketing and management in a variety of high tech companies including: Microsoft, OpenText and Ancestry.com. He joined the Converus team as CEO in October 2013 where he still serves today. Connect with Todd on LinkedIn.