After CEO shakeup, Miami tech company seeks new image as facial recognition leader

New CEO Melissa Doval poses at Kairos’ new office in Midtown in winter 2019.
New CEO Melissa Doval poses at Kairos’ new office in Midtown in winter 2019. Kairos

For years, Brian Brackeen, once CEO of facial recognition company Kairos, was one of the most outspoken boosters of Miami’s tech scene. And as a black CEO of a technology company, he helped burnish Miami’s image as a diverse alternative to a still largely monochrome Silicon Valley.

Today, Brackeen can still be found on Twitter talking up Miami’s selling points to would-be tech investors.

But in October, Brackeen was sued by Kairos, which alleged he had used company funds to finance a lavish personal life. Brackeen quickly countersued for unlawful termination and defamation. The case remains pending in Miami-Dade circuit court.

In the meantime, Kairos is moving on. On Tuesday, the company announced a $4 million investment from its new executive chairman, E. Jay Saunders, a former telecom CEO based in Turks and Caicos. It also named interim CEO Melissa Doval as permanent CEO.

“The expertise E. Jay brings to the business is something almost as valuable as the investment itself,” said Steve O’Hara in a call with the Miami Herald. O’Hara is stepping down as non-executive chairman but remaining on the board.

The company plans to plow the new investment funds into boosting marketing and sales.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, Saunders said he saw an opportunity following Brackeen’s departure to shore up gaps in the company’s management experience.

“I think I can help take Kairos from being in the top two or three [facial recognition companies] to best-in-class,” he said. To do so, he will lean on his experience with mobile carrier Digicel, a $6 billion company, where he was CEO for the Turks and Caicos Islands from 2005 to 2014. He also currently serves as CEO of Domus Semo Sancus, which uses technology to help impoverished populations.

Founded in 2012, Kairos touts its technology as a better alternative to existing facial recognition products thanks to the way it trains its technology. It says it has access to a wider array of images that allows it to detect faces in natural settings and scenarios — not just typical mugshot images used by competitors. Current clients include casinos and dating apps, said Doval, though she declined to name specific companies.

In January, the New York Times reported Kairos’ technology had a lower error rate for classifying the gender of darker-skinned females than even Amazon. MIT research has also confirmed Kairos’ algorithms are at least competitive with leading tech giants, according to Chris Burt, an editor at industry website

Kairos’ technology, especially its ability to analyze emotion, “is generally considered quite robust,” Burt said. Doval said the company plans to submit its products for voluntary testing to the National Institute of Standards and Testing, a federal agency that sets official benchmarks for new technologies.

“The challenge for Kairos now seems to be delivering its technology in a way that generates major revenue,” Burt said in an email.

During his tenure, Brackeen helped Kairos garner at least $3.5 million in venture capital. Along the way, he served as a keynote speaker at SXSW and TechCrunch panels, and was quoted in the Times. In the months leading up to his ouster, the company announced it had purchased an Irish company that uses algorithms to analyze facial expressions in videos.

Through much of 2018, Brackeen had also signaled the company would raise $30 million through an “initial coin offering,” a version of an initial public offering that would have involved investors purchasing stakes in a Kairos-backed cryptocurrency.

But the planned fundraiser only netted about $6 million, mostly from a lone South Florida investor, Doval said. She declined to identify who that was.

In its termination letter to Brackeen, the Kairos board alleged Brackeen was overstating how much money had been raised in the offering. The board also alleged Brackeen had misused company funds for travel expenses and saddled the company with financial responsibility for Brackeen’s girlfriend’s car.

In his countersuit, Brackeen claimed he has been a victim of character assassination.

In an email, Brackeen said Kairos has initiated settlement discussions. Mary Wolff, Kairos’ general counsel and chief operations officer, declined to comment.

Doval insists the lawsuit is now a background issue and that the company is on solid footing. She would not disclose current revenue figures but provided data showing that between January 2018 and January 2019, the number of products using Kairos’ technology nearly quadrupled from 26 to 95; as of Feb. 16, the figure had reached 117. Monthly usage fees range from $99 to $499.

Doval attributes the user growth to sharpened sales efforts. She said she hopes the company will be profitable by year’s end.

The company continues to place an emphasis on making its algorithms effective for diverse populations, she said. For now, Kairos maintains a policy of eschewing law-enforcement clients based on concerns often expressed by Brackeen that most existing facial recognition databases do not contain enough black and brown faces to ensure accuracy.

Kairos stays focused on that mission, and will incorporate as it pivots to selling facial recognition products for third parties, hoping to tap sectors including real estate, tourism, and financial technology. It now employs more than 20 people around the world and has a small office in Singapore. Half of its employees are based in Miami.

As for Brackeen, he says he plans to launch a new venture fund, Lightship Capital, that uses artificial intelligence to reduce bias in investment decisions, and to sell bias-reducing investment products.

“We look forward to seeing which firms take us up on that offer,” he said.

And he’s still in Miami. “I’ll be buried here,” he said.

Meanwhile, Doval shrugged off whether Brackeen’s departure had affected Kairos’ image. “We’re still here, aren’t we?” she said.

Rob Wile covers business, tech, and the economy in South Florida. He is a graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. He grew up in Chicago.