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PayTango dances its way to success

A PayTango station being used by a customer at The Exchange. (credit: Kate Groschner/Photo Editor) A PayTango station being used by a customer at The Exchange. (credit: Kate Groschner/Photo Editor)

Four Carnegie Mellon seniors launched PayTango, a fingerprint-based payment method that eliminates the need for identification and debit cards. Senior information systems majors Brian Groudan, Umang Patel, and Christian Reyes, and senior human-computer interaction and industrial design double major Kelly Lau-Kee developed PayTango in the Tech Startup Lab course taught by computer science assistant professor Luis von Ahn in fall 2012.

Groudan, Lau-Kee, Patel, and Reyes effectively combined their talents to search for a solution to a universal problem: People have to carry around too many cards. Credit cards can be lost, card numbers can be stolen, and it can be a hassle to pull out a card while holding a cup brimming with hot coffee.

They invented a much easier method of payment that uses fingerprints instead of cards.

“Biometrics was a really good way for us to explore how to eliminate the need to carry around extra ‘stuff’ to identify yourself. And that’s kind of the vision that we have moving forward, is that through the use of biometrics, we can strengthen the security to verify that a person is [who they say they are]…. There are a lot of applications,” Lau-Kee said.

PayTango allows people to pay using two fingerprints. The first time someone enrolls with the system, they must swipe their card as their fingers are placed on the scanner.

It takes around 10–15 seconds to associate the card data with the person’s biometric data.

Then, when that person returns, they can use their card by simply scanning their fingerprints, a process that takes only a few seconds.

Although he does not yet use PayTango, sophomore mechanical engineering major Michael O’Connor said, “This seems like an amazing technology that will make my life much easier and that will protect people’s financial information.”

The PayTango founders did not originally think their idea would turn in to a full-fledged business.

According to Lau-Kee, the first time they considered starting a company was when they participated in the University of Pennsylvania PennApps hackathon, the largest college hackathon in the world.

Groudan, Patel, and Reyes attended the hackathon and built the device using only an iPad, a fingerprint reader, and a magnetic card reader.

The product was demoed and received recognition and multiple awards, demonstrating its viability.

PayTango has come far since the PennApps hackathon. Last Tuesday, the company graduated from Y Combinator, an incubator program in Mountain View, California that supports the development of entrepreneurial companies.
After successfully completing the three-month program along with 46 other businesses, Groudan, Lau-Kee, Patel, and Reyes demoed PayTango in front of more than 500 investors, including many prominent Silicon Valley entities.

“We’re still amazed that we’ve gotten this far,” Lau-Kee said.

The business is currently going through its first round of funding. Additionally, PayTango has been installed at multiple dining locations within Carnegie Mellon, including The Underground, Skibo Café, and the Exchange.
A few hundred students already use PayTango, and the device has had, according to Lau-Kee, “really good reception.”

Lau-Kee continued, “Universities are a great place for us, because where we can deliver the most value is in these very tight ecosystems and networks. Here, you use one single ID card to pay for everything, to get into your dorm…. It’s great for us to develop the product and fine tune it in a controlled setting.”

Lauren Hartman, a junior communication design major and cashier at the Exchange, said, “There have been mixed responses to PayTango; most of them have been positive. A lot of people think it’s really cool, other people have been more cynical, thinking, ‘Oh, it’s kind of big brother-ish.’ It’s the control of it, that other people might have access to their information, how safe is it to actually use.”

The PayTango team is working to address and counter student concerns.

They are also planning to branch into other universities and venues such as gyms, restaurants, and convenience stores.

Lau-Kee is the only PayTango founder still taking classes at the Carnegie Mellon Pittsburgh campus. She, as well as Groudan, Patel, and Reyes, plan to continue their development of PayTango post-graduation.

“Our plans are pretty much to run with this as far as we can go. The great thing is, we’re so young. We don’t have as much at stake as if, say, we were 30 years old. Over the summer we’re going to go out to the Valley and develop this even further,” Lau-Kee said.